Staff and Students Prepare for 10 Days of Strikes Across Two Months

Staff at 68 universities, including the University of St Andrews, prepare for ten days of strikes later this month, affecting over one million students.

The ten days of strikes will be spread across three weeks of teaching. Week 1 will last five days, Monday 14 to Friday 18 February and will include 44 institutions in disputes over USS pension. 68 institutions will participate in two days of striking in week 2 (Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 February) over both the pension and pay and working conditions dispute. Week 3 will include 63 institutions striking over the pay and working conditions dispute for three days from Monday 28 February to Wednesday 2 March. The final day of strikes has been coordinated to coincide with an NUS student strike calling for free further education at point of use and for improvements to staff working conditions, pay and pensions.

The strikes come following ongoing disputes around pay and pensions which led to strike action at the end of last semester. Last year, UCU members voted in favour of strike action in two ballots, one concerning pension cuts and the other over work- ing conditions and wages. The issues that have provoked strike action are a 35% slash to guaranteed pensions. At the time the UCU made clear plans to continue action if its disputes were not settled, threatening further industrial action continuing into the spring.

Disputes over pensions have been ongoing for a decade. The UCU sees the valuation of the pension scheme Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) as ‘flawed’. This valuation identified a £14-£18 billion shortfall in the scheme’s finances. The UCU claims this valuation was made at an inappropriate time – coming at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when global markets were crashing.

Over the last 12 years, university staff have faced a 20% real term pay cut, prompting disputes over pay and working conditions which include cuts, casualisation, issues of equality and the addition of unsafe workloads and ‘exploita- tive and insecure contracts’ which a third of academic staff are on.

The UCU has made proposals to employers which could prevent strike action after the USS scheme’s assets in- creased by more than £92bn, demanding a £2.5k pay increase for all staff

Employer representatives Universities UK (UUK) said, "Students will struggle to understand why they should bear the brunt of UCU’s refusal to confront the financial chal-lenges facing all pension schemes.”

Maria Torres-Quevedo, St Andrews branch administrator / organiser said that, “University staff are striking for the future of higher education. Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and our industrial action aims to create better conditions for all of us. The major issues in our current disputes are casualisation, workloads, equality, pay, and pensions. It’s also really important to state that this is not a lecturers’ strike – our union includes staff across the univer- sity. Together, we are the university.

“We want a national pay increase above inflation, as previous offers have represented a real-term pay cut. We want local action on workloads and casual contracts, continuing with our important progress made on postgraduate teaching contracts.”

When asked about the strikes a University of St Andrews spokesperson said, “These are national disputes which 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.”

However, the UCU St Andrews branch has argued that they want the University to seriously consider the USS (pensions) proposal. And as University of St Andrews Principle Sally Mapstone is on the board of UUK they “are calling on her to support staff at St Andrews.”

UCU St Andrews branch are keen to include students in their action, and will be organising Teach Outs on strike days for staff and students.

They said, “Collective action is powerful. Your action in solidarity with staff can make all the difference! Email University of St Andrews management and let them know that you support the strike. Ask them how they will be spending strike de- ductions from staff pay. Share your thoughts with press and social media. Let staff in your department know that you support them! Don’t cross picket lines, do come to our Teach Outs. And bring your own issues to the table too, and let’s build staff-stu- dent solidarity in St Andrews.”

On what support the University will provide students who are facing their fourth straight year of disruption, a University spokesperson said, “In St Andrews, we will take all possible steps to avoid or minimise disruption to classes and coursework. We hope that those staff who choose to exercise their right to take industrial action do so in ways which re- flect their deep commitment to our student community. We’ll provide every appropriate support to any students affected by this action in St Andrews. Our vice-principal of education, Students’ Association president, and UCU leadership locally have agreed to meet regularly to prioritise support and information for students, and to look at ways in which disruption can be avoided.

“Students everywhere have borne a disproportionate burden through the pandemic, and it will be disappointing and concerning to many that UCU has decided to call for strike action just as higher education across the UK returns to normal.”

Image: Lorna M Campbell

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