University students in the UK are facing disruption to their studies in the last few weeks of term and into the new year after union leaders warned of a second wave of strike action if staff demands are not met.
More than 40,000 university staff at 60 universities are preparing to go on strike for eight days from next Monday, followed by a period of work to rule, in protest over their pensions, pay and conditions.
But with no progress in negotiations, the University and College Union (UCU) warned of further strike action next term in order to pursue their claims and bring their employers back to the table.
More than a million students face disruption over the next two weeks, with lectures and tutorials cancelled and no plans to reschedule lost teaching time. The National Union of Students has called on its members to support lecturers and many are expected to join them in the protests.
About 43,600 university lecturers, librarians, technicians and other academic staff are taking action in two separate disputes – one about changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which triggered strike action last year, and the other about pay and conditions.
The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said she was disappointed there had been no substantive talks over pay and conditions. Negotiators held a final meeting about the pensions dispute on Wednesday with little hope of a breakthrough.
“The employers seem to want to test the mettle of staff and see if they will turn up on picket lines,” Grady said. “It is really unfortunate they have decided to do that because they are misjudging their staff.
“More and more people are joining the union and there is a real feeling of anger. There could be a second wave of strikes if we don’t get a long-term, sustainable offer and universities refuse to take our concerns seriously.”
The universities affected include many of the biggest and most prestigious institutions in the UK, including Oxford, Manchester, University College London, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Cambridge.
The action comes less than two years after 65 universities were brought to a virtual standstill by 14 days of strikes over changes to staff pensions, in an unprecedented wave of industrial action in the UK higher education sector.
Last year the union succeeded in forcing employers to drop plans to change pensions from defined benefit schemes to the less favourable defined contribution schemes. It is now challenging the size of staff contributions, which it thinks should be capped at 8% of a lecturer’s salary, rather than the 9.6% approved by employers.
The UCU estimates the pension changes will leave lecturers around £240,000 worse off in retirement, and professors up to £730,000 worse off. On pay, the union said there had been a 17% real-terms drop since 2009 and there was concern about pay inequality for women and BME staff. The UCU also wants employers to address concerns about growing casualisation of the higher education workforce.
Although most students supported their lecturers in last year’s industrial action, some successfully claimed compensation for lost teaching time. Similar action seems likely this year, with a petition already under way at Bangor University calling for reimbursements of £380 per student.
Universities UK (UUK) and the University and Colleges Employers Association wrote an open letter to staff this week challenging the UCU. The UUK president, Julia Buckingham, said: “In recent months, employers have taken significant steps to protect the value of both pensions and pay because we care about our dedicated and talented staff.”
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