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Staff left with “no choice” as 18 day strike planned for February

Oxford University staff are set to go on strike for 18 days between the months of February and March in a move organised by the University and College Union (UCU). In a decision announced by the UCU earlier this week, they will be among 70,000 others at 150 universities nation-wide to take industrial action in response to concerns over pay, working conditions, and pensions. 

Aiming to have a greater impact than the three days of UCU strikes last November, the Union’s upcoming walkout marks “an unprecedented programme of escalating strike action” causing widespread disruption.  

While precise dates are yet to be confirmed, UCU members taking part will include lecturers, tutors, researchers, and other staff – some 11% of the professional body of the university. Their demands come in the light of what the UCU general secretary Jo Grady termed “over a decade of falling pay, rampant insecure employment practices and devastating pension cuts”, as well as the increasing pressures of the current cost of living crisis. 

As a result of this, the union has called for widespread reform. In a statement issued by the organisation, disruption may be mitigated if the “vast wealth of the sector” was redistributed by university vice-chancellors – something Oxford’s newly appointed Vice Chancellor Irene Tracey touched upon in her admission ceremony earlier last week. 

Describing staff as “the lifeblood of any university”, Tracey announced plans to commission a new, independent review of pay, pensions and working conditions in order to “support staff during these difficult financial times and to be an attractive place to work in the future”. 

Despite this, a UCU representative told Cherwell: “we expect the University to attempt to downplay our industrial action and are extremely grateful for the support and solidarity we have received from students during this dispute, particularly during November’s action.”

In a statement to Cherwell on staff pensions and pay, David Chivall (Vice President of the Oxford branch of the UCU) asked the University to “stick to the commitment that it made in 2018 to ‘seek to provide pension provision for USS members employed by the University that is of the same standard as currently available.’

He told Cherwell:  Last year, the University failed to support a UCU proposal which would have prevented the employer body Universities UK forcing through an unnecessary and unjustified ~35% cut to our guaranteed future retirement income. USS has always been a healthy scheme and even its own flawed valuation methods show that the scheme is very much in surplus: there is no reason not to restore our pensions.

“On pay, we’re disappointed that the University continues to hide behind the employer’s body, UCEA. The cost of living crisis is now so acute that individual departments are having to make their own adjustments, such as giving staff a lunch allowance. We welcome the comments of the new Vice-Chancellor during her Admission Ceremony to ‘shift the needle in your quality of life so that you can continue to deliver your best performance.’ We urge the University to publicly call for UCEA to make a pay offer that that will shift the needle in our quality of life in the right direction. A below inflation pay uplift can only make things worse.”

The 4-5% pay rise offered by the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) on Wednesday 11th was just that, and has consequently been slammed by the UCU as “not enough”. Given its position at 9% below the current Retail Price Index (RPI), Chivall criticised the UCEA for “effectively asking HE professionals to work an entire month without pay this year compared to last. This comes on top of a decade of pay cuts which mean staff are effectively working unpaid for three months a year compared to 10 years ago.”

In the light of previous criticisms that “real change” had been moving at a “glacial pace”, the UCU’s Jo Grady has stated that the “clock is now ticking for the sector to produce a deal or be hit with widespread disruption throughout spring”. 

While the Oxford branch of the UCU has expressed regret at the extent of the industrial action members of the union felt compelled to take, it believes they were left with “no choice”. “We have been forced to announce further strike days because of the failure of employers to engage seriously with the damage caused in recent years”.

For some Oxford students this would mean losses yet greater than the predicted 41% cut in contact hours unlikely to be rescheduled this February and March.  

Among the near 2.5 million other students across the country to be affected by staff strikes for the second time since November, students at the University of Oxford have expressed frustration at the ongoing situation and their position as “collateral damage” in the disputes. 

For those with upcoming Moderations or Final Exams, the consequences of the lack of teaching are likely to be particularly severe. In conversation with Cherwell, one student expressed concern that the university was not doing enough to mitigate the impact of the strikes on students in the form of hourly compensation.

When approached for comment, the university told Cherwell: “We note the recent announcement from UCU on further strike action in February and March. We await formal notification from UCU of their intentions, and will update staff and students once we have the details.”

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