Earlier this week, the University and College Union (UCU) announced that staff in 60 universities across the UK will abandon their offices, libraries, seminar rooms and lecture theatres for eight days of strike action beginning on 25 November.
The strikes are the result of two ongoing disputes in higher education: one on pay, job security, workload and equality, and one on changes to Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions.
Although these are separate disputes, they speak to a common theme. Over the past decade, the treatment of higher education staff has taken a turn for the worse, and they have witnessed declines in their pay, pensions and working conditions.
Pay in higher education has fallen by more than 20% against inflation since 2009, and attempts by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) to downplay the scale of this trend confirms just how far it has plummeted.
At the same time, staff in higher education face increasingly unreasonable workload demands and insecure employment. A third of academic staff are employed on fixed-term contracts. Our members crave more job security – in a recent UCU survey, 97% of fixed-term staff said they would prefer a permanent contract – but many are forced to hop from one temporary contract to another.
Employers have also repeatedly failed to take any meaningful action to tackle stubborn equality gaps in pay and progression. Women in academia are still paid 15% less than men on average, and black, Asian and minority ethnic staff are roughly 10% more likely to be employed on an insecure contract.
These interconnected issues all have a real impact on the sustainability of careers in higher education. We need a coherent response from employers that commits to tangible action on workload, casualisation and pay equality, as well as improvements to pay.
The current dispute over USS pensions stems from changes introduced since 2011, which mean the average member stands to lose around £240,000 over their lifetime. Last year’s unprecedented strike action stopped plans to scrap defined benefit pensions, but members now face steep rises in their pension contributions – from 8% last year to 9.6%, with further increases planned in 2021. This is despite an independent panel of experts concluding that the scheme could continue with a much lower contribution rate.
We are concerned that these rises are preventing some staff from staying in the scheme. During recent negotiations it was the employers who opted to back these higher contribution rates, so we’re calling on them to foot the bill.
By voting for strike action in both disputes, UCU members have sent a clear message that enough is enough. At a national level, 79% of members who voted backed strike action over changes to pensions, while 74% of members polled backed strike action over pay and equalities. Although members in some institutions have been prevented from taking action because of anti-trade union laws, employers should be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on these issues.
As a former lecturer, I know that the decision to disrupt students’ learning is never an easy one. But members know that the issues at stake in these disputes have a material impact on the quality of education they are able to deliver. Students know it too, and we’re delighted that the National Union of Students will stand with us in our fights for fair pay and pensions.
Universities need to recognise that an investment in staff is an investment in the quality of UK higher education. They would do well to listen to the likes of shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, who has called for unions and employers to return to unconditional talks and find solutions to both disputes.
We are ready to get back to the negotiating table as soon as the employers are ready to make credible proposals. The results of the recent ballots should make it clear that the suggestions they have put forward are seriously inadequate.
The ball is now in the employers’ court. If they fail to come forward with improved offers, they face significant disruption.
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