University College Union (UCU) members at the University of St Andrews plan to recommence strike action for 14 days, beginning on 20 February. This action will be under-taken by 74 other institutions, an increase from the 60 universities that participated last year.
These strikes are in response to the same issues that prompted the industrial action undertaken by members of staff in November 2019 — the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), equal pay and unfair working conditions. Research undertaken by the Universities and Colleges’ Employers Association has revealed that the pay of staff has dropped by around 17% in real terms since 2009. UCU estimates this number to be as high as 20.8%. Concurrently, an analysis by First Actuarial suggests that the changes to the USS would result in an academic receiving a net loss of £240,000 in retirement.
Tom Jones, a member of the UCU who is participating in the strikes, told The Saint that, “The union turns to strike action as a last resort when it fails to achieve progress through other means”. He hopes that the threat of further industrial action will speed up the conversations surrounding pensions, pay and working conditions.
Following the strikes in November, some concessions were made. In relation to pensions, there have been more talks between universities, the trade union and the pension fund, and there has been some indication that progress will be made on this issue. Specifically, members have been consulted about whether universities can help fund the increased cost of pensions, instead of passing them onto staff. With regards to demands surrounding pay and working conditions, employers have imposed a final offer and say that they will not improve the basic level of pay to staff.
The upcoming strikes aim to see this change. Furthermore, UCU members hope that industrial action will ensure that there is a creation of UK wide plans of action regarding the gender pay, the ethnicity pay gap and work load. The employer’s association has agreed to look at these issues — something which University staff have been consistently demanding for almost five years. However, according to faculty, it is essential that UK-wide implementation plans are established so that universities are forced to commit to instigating real change.If universities insist on negotiating these plans on a local level, without national targets, they have the potential to renege on their promises.
Mr Jones said that “History teaches us that striking is the most effective action. Every time employers impose a final offer, if we take strike action, eventually they agree [to change that offer]. Employers need to negotiate openly and honestly, but, due to the cost of staff, they are unwilling to do this.”
A University spokesperson maintained that “students should not be penalised because of this national dispute. It can only be resolved by meaningful negotiation at a national level to reach a settlement that is fair to staff and sustainable for their institutions.
“In St Andrews, we will take all possible steps to avoid or minimise disruption to classes and coursework, and we hope that our staff will exercise their right to take industrial action in ways which reflect their deep commitment to our student community”.
If these strikes do not achieve substantial change, there may be a chance of further industrial action. At the moment, the Union is planning to re-balance its members as its mandate for industrial action runs out towards the end of March. Following this, there will be a possibility of further action, potentially in the form of action short of a strike.
Mr Jones also spoke about student-staff solidarity. He said that, in the past, it has been “extremely heartening to see that students have joined with their lecturers, library staff and members of IT services in pursuing industrial action. Students can see that the sorts of issues being discussed are crucial to the future of the university sector. Having a decent level of pay and decent working conditions are basic demands and students realise that they would want these things for themselves in thework place.”
On 4 February, the St Andrews’ Student’s Representative Council unanimously passed a motion to respond to the UCU strikes. The motion states that staff in universities and colleges should be properly supported and acknowledges that workers have the right to take strike action when taken in accordance with the law. It further cites that the aim of industrial action is not to disadvantage students.The University of St Andrews intends to ensure that steps are taken “to avoid or minimise disruption to classes and coursework”.
During the strike action later this month, the SRC commits to working with the University to ensure that, with regards to assessment, students are not disadvantaged as a result of the industrial action.