UK: Higher education staff strike over massive pension cuts and deteriorating pay and working conditions

published 15 February 2022 updated 11 March 2022

Since February 14, thousands of University and College Union (UCU) members in the UK are taking strike action in higher education over massive cuts to university pensions. Further action is also planned over pay and working conditions.

Staff at 44 universities started walking out on February 14th after university employers refused to withdraw cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). In addition, university employers did not accept UCU’s compromise proposals which would have seen staff and employers pay slightly more to protect benefits and resolve the pension dispute.

According to UCU General Secretary Jo Grady, these actions are necessary because the university employers have “pushed through brutal pension cuts and done nothing to address falling pay, pay inequality, the rampant use of insecure contracts, and unmanageable workloads.”

She added that she finds it “outrageous” that, when they should be trying to resolve this dispute, employer representatives have instead been finding new ways to deduct pay from university workers.

“Rather than punishing their workforce, these so-called leaders need to look in the mirror and ask why students support staff taking strike action and why their own workforce is so demoralised,” she noted.

Grady was also adamant that throughout these disputes, UCU has offered simple solutions that would avert industrial action and benefit the sector in the long term. “But, time and again, employers have chosen to continue pushing staff to breaking point, while the sector continues to bring in tens of billions of pounds each year.”

To avoid this period of industrial action, all vice-chancellors had to do was accept UCU’s viable pension proposals and take action over worsening pay and working conditions, she explained. “That they didn’t is an abject failure of their leadership.”

The pension trustee confirmed that UCU’s proposals are viable and implementable. The measures, which will lead to a 35 per cent cut from the guaranteed retirement income of members, are set to be formalised on 22 February.

Further action planned

On 21 February, strike action over pay and working conditions will also start with an additional 24 universities joining the action, bringing the overall total to 68 universities. This dispute is over a 20 per cent real-terms pay cut over the past 12 years, unmanageable workloads, pay inequality, and the use of exploitative and insecure contracts which have severely impacted the sector. Altogether, more than 50,000 staff are expected to walk out, UCU said.

There will be a total of three weeks of industrial action in the higher education sector:

  • Week 1 (USS pension dispute only, 44 institutions): five days; 14-18 February.
  • Week 2 (both the pension, pay, and working conditions dispute, 68 institutions): two days; 21-22 February.
  • Week 3 (pay and working conditions dispute only, 63 institutions): three days; 28 February-2 March.

UCU proposals

To resolve the pension dispute, UCU is demanding that employers revoke the cuts to staff pensions and formally accept the union’s compromise proposals.

To resolve the pay and working conditions dispute, UCU is demanding a £2,500 pay increase for all staff, as well as action to tackle unmanageable workloads, pay inequality, and the use of insecure and exploitative contracts.

Support from students

The final day of strike action on 2 March has been called to coincide with the student strike organised by the National Union of Students (NUS). The NUS is supporting UCU’s industrial action and is calling for better working conditions, pay, and pensions for staff.

“Students are standing by our members because they know university staff are overworked and underpaid. And they know that this sector, which is awash with money, can afford to treat its workers with dignity. […] Vice-chancellors urgently need to get around the table and help UCU resolve these disputes,” Grady acknowledged.

Follow the UCU “solidarity wall” here.