UCU, the trade union representing many academic and support staff at UCL, have called a strike on 24, 25 and 30 November 2022. UCU have a mandate to hold further strikes, as well as action short of a strike, later this academic year. Read more below.
We held an all-student vote to decide what position the Students' Union should take in relation to the planned UCU industrial action.
We're here to facilitate this vote and will remain impartial until an outcome is reached. After the vote, whichever outcome has a majority will set our position as a Students’ Union. And the results are in...
What position should the Students' Union take in relation to the planned UCU industrial action?
Support: 4,322 (68.7%)
Oppose: 1,693 (26.9%)
6,290 students voted, including 275 (4.4%) voting to abstain
If you have any questions, please contact [email protected].
- Summary of Industrial Action
On Monday 24 October, University and College Union (UCU) members confirmed that industrial action will take place in the 2022-23 academic year. This is a national dispute between UCU members and university employers. Industrial action is likely to take two forms, strikes by UCU members and ‘action short of a strike’ which is likely to include a marking boycott in 2023, potentially affecting examinations and assessments.
UCU recently held two votes of its members across the country, one on pay and conditions and one on pensions. In the pay and working condition ballot, the turnout was 57.8% and the yes vote for strike action was 81.1% In the pension ballot, the turnout was 60.2% and the yes vote for strike action was 84.9%.
Three days of strike action have already been announced in November and it is expected that more strikes will take place in February and beyond in what UCU describe as ‘escalating’ action. At this stage it is not known how many strike days there will be. However, there is unlikely to be a quick end to this dispute as there is a significant difference between UCU’s goals and the current offer from employers.
UCU had around 2,800 members at UCL in 2021 out of total staff of more than 13,000. Their members are mainly academic staff, but also include some professional services staff in areas such as HR, IT, facilities etc. Not all of these staff will go on strike. But UCU will be encouraging as many of its members as it can to take action.
During strike days, teaching for some students will be disrupted. Academics staff may also remove online materials linked to the topics that were due to be covered on those days. There are also likely to be picket lines – groups of staff protesting – outside a number of university buildings, encouraging other staff and students not to enter the university. These cannot prevent anyone entering, but will be trying to inform people about the reasons for the strike and discouraging other staff from attending work.
A number of UCL staff are members of other Trade Unions such as Unison or the GMB. These Unions are not taking strike action.
Following a Union Exec meeting on Monday 14 November, the Union Exec members have called a referendum to decide whether the UCU industrial action in the 2022-23 academic year should be supported by the Students’ Union.
- Why has industrial action been called by UCU?
Over the past few years, the pay of staff in universities has not risen as quickly as some other sections of the economy. Inflation has been higher than the pay rise for some months and has now reached 12%.
Over the past twenty years there has also been a gradual increase in academic workload as student numbers and expectations have increased. Across the sector, there are also some pay disparities, where women, Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) and disabled staff are on average paid less than those who are male, white and non-disabled..
On the issue of pay and conditions, UCU are therefore asking for:
- An increase in pay for all staff of at least inflation + 2% or 12% whichever is the higher.
- A nationally-agreed action across all universities, to close gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps.
- An agreed framework to eliminate precarious employment practices by universities, which is a common means of employing staff working on research in particular due to the often short term funding associated with research grants.
- Nationally agreed action to address staff workloads.
- For the standard weekly, full-time contract of employment to be reduced to 35 hours, with no loss of pay.
There is also a disagreement between UCU and universities over staff pensions. Most UCU members are part of the national university pension scheme. This is one of the few remaining ‘defined benefit’ pension, where staff receive a pension based on their earnings over their career and their total years of employment with universities. This is a relatively generous scheme compared to many others, but is considerably less generous than in the past. Defined benefit pension schemes are still common in the UK public sector but have largely disappeared from the private and charity sectors due to their high costs for employers.
The value of the pension scheme is measured every few years to check that enough money is being paid in to meet the future costs of pensions that will need to be paid. At the time of the last formal valuation, the pension scheme was in a large deficit, this is because its total assets (money paid in by staff and the universities was not enough to meet the scheme’s total liabilities (the amount it is due to pay out in the future to pay for staff pensions). As a result, universities decided to reduce the pension benefits that staff will get in future and increase the payments that both the universities and staff make to the scheme.
A full revaluation of the scheme only takes place every three years and isn’t due until next year. However, an interim valuation has recently indicated that these changes, together with a rise in the value of the scheme’s investments, has now likely brought the scheme back into balance. In February, the interim valuation reported that the scheme’s assets had recovered to pre-pandemic levels. In August, the Financial Times reported that the scheme now had a small surplus. UCU have always disputed the previous valuation of and are now saying that the changes made last year were unnecessary. They are now asking universities to:
» Reverse changes in the pension scheme made last year by reducing staff pension contributions and increasing the amount that staff will receive in pension payments.
» Ensure that future valuations of the scheme’s assets take a less risk adverse view of the likely pension costs the scheme will have to meet in the future.
- What you need to know
We have produced a frequently asked questions page on strike action. Read it here.
- What could the Union do to support the strikes?
Should the student body vote to support industrial action, the Union can only take action on issues that fall directly under its charitable purposes. This means that it cannot use its resources to get involved in a dispute between university staff and their employers. Any support would therefore largely be symbolic. However, it could:
» Publish a statement in support of the UCU strikes.
» Lobby UCL to encourage universities nationally to meet the UCU’s demands.
» Encourage students not to cross picket lines.
» Sabbatical Officers could visit picket lines to demonstrate support.
» Educate students about the reasons for the strike.
» Inform students about protests, rallies, ‘teach outs’ and other events organised by UCU to support the strike.
What are reasons why students may wish to support industrial action?
1. Staff in higher education have faced a reduction in their pay relative to other sectors of the economy and have also had to work longer hours with more staff on short term contracts. This has been a gradual change over many years, eroding their terms and conditions.
2. In the past year the national pay settlement was a long way below inflation – a real terms pay cut for staff at a time of high inflation.
3. The average pay of women, ethnic minority staff and those with disabilities is less than the average for men, white and non-disabled staff. This is unfair and action to address this has so far not been enough to address this issue.
4. Many university staff are employed on short term contracts, creating insecurity and making it especially challenging for early career staff.
5. The value of university staff pensions have reduced over time, with those retiring today and in the future receiving a less generous pension and having to make larger pension contributions.
6. Student support for the industrial action would increase the pressure on universities to address these issues.
7. UCU argued that staff working conditions are student learning conditions – well motivated and fairly paid staff are more likely to deliver a great learning experience for students.
8. Postgraduate research students who are teaching assistants can be both members of the Students’ Union and members of UCU. Some may be striking along with other staff. As their representative body, we should support them.
What are reasons why students may wish to oppose industrial action?
1. The strikes could be damaging for students’ education with potentially cancelled lectures, seminars, tutorials and laboratories. In the past, strikes have led to lost learning and delayed teaching. Students may feel that whilst they support UCU’s aims, they do not wish for additional disruption to their learning and wider experience.
2. We don't know how many strikes there will be and therefore the potential impact on students is unclear.
3. The proposed marking boycott could be damaging for students and could affect some students’ progress on their degrees.
4. Whilst staff have had a real-terms reduction in pay, some universities across the country cannot afford to pay staff more without cuts in services for students which could include staff redundancies or increases in student fees.
5. Whilst the university pension scheme has been reduced, as a largely defined benefit scheme, it remains relatively generous compared with defined contribution schemes which are common in the private sector, with universities contributing around 20% of staff salaries – a relatively high level of employer pension contributions.
6. The pension scheme must legally balance its assets and liabilities. There is currently a dispute between UCU and the university employers about the affordability of changes to the scheme to reinstate previous benefits. Increases in benefits may require increased employer contributions which would have to be funded by reductions in other spending or increases in fees.
7. UCU’s desire for a 35 hour working week for staff would be a reduction from the current relatively normal 36.5 hour contract.