Staff at 150 higher education providers could take industrial action

More industrial action is on the way as UCU successfully meets ballot thresholds

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

The University and College Union now has a mandate for industrial action in 150 universities and higher education providers following the announcement of the results of the ballot that concluded last week.

It is the turnout that is most important in exercises like this – under the terms of the 2016 Trade Unions Act at least 50 per cent of eligible voters need to have participated for the ballot to be valid. For the pay and conditions dispute the turnout was 57.8 per cent (with an 81.1 per cent yes vote), and for the pensions dispute the turnout 60.2 per cent (with an 84.9 per cent yes vote). UCU is the first education sector union to meet this threshold for national action since the 2016 act.

Most on-campus UCU branches will be meeting on Wednesday to discuss next steps. UCU general secretary Jo Grady indicated that employers would have a short window in which to make “serious” attempts to negotiate – noting “the game has changed”. Should this not happen, she threatened to bring universities to “a standstill”.

In a published statement Grady noted that:

Today history has been made by our members in universities, who in huge numbers have delivered an unprecedented mandate for strike action.

In response a Universities UK spokesperson, speaking on behalf of employers contributing to Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions, said:

We continue to meet union and USS representatives regularly. Should UCU decide to take industrial action, unfortunately this is likely to impede joint working on the next valuation, and delay much-needed changes such as governance reform of the scheme and the introduction of lower cost options for members.

And at the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) – which acts for the sector on pay and conditions – Chief Executive Raj Jethwa said:

It is disappointing that UCU’s HE members have voted in favour of industrial action, even though two-thirds of academics are not actually members of UCU or any union. While threatening industrial action will not create new money for the sector, UCEA and its member HE institutions want to work with UCU and other trade unions to support staff and students and to avoid disruptive industrial action. However, there needs to be a realistic assessment of what is possible.

Though there have been some suggestions that whole sector could see action as a result of this vote, only union members employed at the 150 balloted providers would be eligible to take part.

From a student perspective Chloe Field, NUS vice president for higher education, said:

We stand in solidarity with staff, who have today voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. Staff teaching conditions are students’ learning conditions, and we must fight together for a fairer, healthier education system for everyone who works and studies. This would be the fifth consecutive year of disruption to students because of strikes. In that time staff and students have faced a real-terms cut to their income, driven by the failed marketisation of the sector. We all deserve a fair deal, especially during the cost-of-living crisis, and it is up to UUK and UCEA to come to the table and agree to UCU’s demands.

6 responses to “Staff at 150 higher education providers could take industrial action

  1. The final sentence is not accurate: employees who are not union members are eligible to take part in a strike, although of course it is likely that relatively few of them will choose to do so. From government advice to businesses facing industrial action: “If non-union members go on strike, they are protected from dismissal and have the same rights as union members, as long as the industrial action is lawful.” (See https://www.gov.uk/if-your-business-faces-industrial-action/nonunion-employees-and-strikes)

    1. Indeed. It’s very common in large-scale strikes for union membership and density to increase significantly.

  2. The statement “and for the pensions dispute the turnout was 84.9 per cent” is also inaccurate. The yes vote was 84.9%, turnout was about 60%

    1. No.

      The dispute can be resolved without changing tuition fees – by the UK government immediately increasing the £1.3 billion grant spent by OfS on funding institutions as a ‘pay and pensions supplementary allocation’ ear-marked for that purpose (and the Barnett consequentials would then be paid to the devolved governments to enable them to decide how best to resolve the situations in their institutions).

      It’s a political choice of government priorities whether universities are funded sufficiently to pay adequate salaries and pensions for staff, or whether, for example, their priority is that the Shell’s, BP’s and Amazon’s should keep their current UK super-profits or non-doms avoid tax. HE may be independent institutions but it’s a highly state-regulated industry and there’s always been a strong correlation in OECD developed countries between expenditure on higher level skills and economic growth. Sunak could choose to look at that correlation and use it to inform his economic choices in his ‘growth-led statement’ on 17 November. Vice Chancellors could do somewhat more to point that out. If they don’t, they’ll both have to bear the consequences of their inaction.

  3. With a budget of cuts, I can’t see Sunak wanting spend what little headroom he has on lecturers wages

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