University strikes continue despite hopes of a breakthrough in talks

University workers continue their strike action this week across the UK

University strike

Staff at 150 universities across the UK are continuing their industrial action with a three-day strike this week.

Despite claims that progress had been made in talks between unions and employers, 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) are walking out again this week.

Strikes by UCU members were paused last month after unions entered discussions with the employer, as UCU announced ‘real progress’ was taking place in the long-running dispute.

Last week it seemed further headway was made after employers made an offer UCU General Secretary Jo Grady described as a ‘breakthrough’.

According to UCU, the latest offer would pave the way for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension to be restored by April 2024 and an end to involuntary zero-hour contracts in higher education.

New standards, frameworks and principles to tackle other forms of casualised contracts are to be agreed, along with reduced workloads and closing equality pay gaps.

However the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) have not changed what they’ve said is their final pay offer of between 8% and 5%, with a proportion paid in advance.  

Commenting on the latest offer from employers, Jo Grady said: “After weeks of intensive negotiations, university employers have finally agreed to put forward a set of proposals on pay, conditions and pensions.

“This breakthrough is down to the strength, determination and sacrifice of university workers who have stood on picket lines. 

“The proposals will now move through our union’s democratic processes, and strike action will continue until our 70,000 UCU members have had the chance to have their say.”

Some members believe there is not enough progress to warrant the suspension of strikes, with no movement on pay and limited progress on the other issues beyond promises to talk.

UCU members were consulted in a ballot where they voted in favour of putting the proposals to members in a formal vote and not partaking in industrial action from Monday.

In the eballot results last Friday, 36,070 members confirmed two to one that they want to be consulted on the proposals, with 67% voting in favour.

A meeting of branch delegates however voted by 53% in favour of consulting members and 70% were opposed to suspending strike action, resulting in the continuation of strikes this week.

The UCEA said they were ‘deeply disappointed’ at the decision by UCU’s Higher Education Committee’s to proceed with this week’s strike action.

Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s Chief Executive said: “Every indication is that UCU members are tired of strike action.

“That is why students and staff across the UK’s higher education sector will be deeply disappointed that UCU’s Higher Education Committee has decided to proceed with next week’s attempted strike action.

“The agreement reached earlier this week reflected the employers’ genuine desire to positively reset industrial relations in our sector.

“There is a tangible offer on the table from employers to negotiate on the issues at the heart of this dispute. It is disappointing that the HEC has refused to put this to members.

“The HEC decisions, therefore, are even more disappointing because employers have been clear that these important talks cannot begin while strike action continues or strike dates are set. We urge UCU to think again.”

Since 2009/10, university staff pay has declined in value by 25% relative to RPI, whilst the higher education sector held £44 billion in reserves in 2021/22.

The union has said it’s the biggest series of strikes ever to hit UK university campuses as strikes stretch into their fifth month.

Why I’m on strike – Ru, Tutor at University of Westminster

“I came from a course that only had one full-time tutor and the rest were part-time. For me as a student it was insane, and then when I became a tutor and saw their experiences first-hand and how ridiculous it is, because you are getting such low pay which doesn’t make sense with the tuition fees the students are paying right now and the facilities are not expanding with the growth in the number of students.

“I feel very sorry that we have to strike because it’s a shame for the students who came here to study and their time is being wasted, not gaining knowledge because of the stubbornness of the capitalist system and management.

“But with our wages and living costs, it’s just crazy. I can’t keep up with the costs in this country. I’m still relying on money from my parents even though I’m working, it’s ridiculous.”

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

Left Foot Forward’s trade union reporting is supported by the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust

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