By Siôn Ford
Members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have voted to once again take industrial action following an on-going dispute with 60 universities across the UK. This latest action comes in the wake of last year’s Spring strikes, which lasted for four weeks. Union members then voted to take action – the largest industrial action in the history of UK universities – following proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), despite the findings of an independent joint-expert panel.
UCU announced its members’ decision two weeks ago, confirming that 79% voted in favour of strikes in response to further proposed changes to the USS, while 74% voted in favour of strikes with regard to working conditions, staff wellbeing, and pay. Universities across the UK have been given notice by UCU that the industrial action will take place from Monday, November 25 until Wednesday, December 4, lasting for eight days.
The changes would have had a major impact on the pensions of university staff, with staff set to lose tens of thousands of pounds. Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, described the effects of the proposed changes: “A typical USS member will be around £240,000 worse off because of the changes made to the scheme since 2011. The latest round of increased contributions backed by universities represents another pay cut for staff.”
Union members fear that the pension scheme is under constant threat and that the proposed changes will lead to a drop in members, eventually leading to an unsustainable deficit. Alongside this, university staff across the UK have seen their pay devalue by approximately 20% since 2009, a result of successive low-inflation pay rises.
In spite of the action taken last year, members feel that UK universities have failed to take action on the issues raised previously, and now growing concerns over working conditions and staff wellbeing have led to a mandate for further action.
“Pay is a big part of [the dispute] for sure, but there’s all these other things we really need universities to start talking to us about,” said Andy Williams, Cardiff UCU Spokesperson. He described how the Union wants to ensure that all university staff are employed on secure, full-time contracts which reflect their positions as recognised employees of universities, something Universities UK has allegedly refused to negotiate on.
“Workload and staff mental health, that’s a real problem for us. We see the mental health of our students being prioritised more and more, and that’s a good thing – that’s a necessary thing. But we’re going through similar things. The modern university is an unhealthy place in many ways for students and staff.”
Casualisation among the workforce has been cited as a priority issue, given that UK PhD students are required to teach whilst being treated as a student and without being recognised as full employees. While some small measures have been taken to address these imbalances, not enough has been done in the eyes of the Union. PhD students are expected to teach without being given full-time contracts; in some cases outside of Wales, some university staff are being employed on zero-hour contracts.
“We’ve had colleagues in the university kill themselves because of the pressure of workload over the last few years. We all know colleagues and friends who’ve left the profession because they feel it’s just not worth the toll on their mental health. This is not good for us, it’s not good for our students, it’s not good for the university as a whole,” said Andy Williams.
“What we’re asking for isn’t massive, just a non-derisory offer on pay and the willingness to talk to us on a national level about casualisation, about workload, about the gender pay gap and the BAME pay gap.”
Last year’s strikes came about after 88% of union members voted for action in the face of proposed changes to the pension scheme. The action lasted four weeks and, as Gair Rhydd previously reported, Cardiff University made a saving of £909,341 during that time. The funds were subsequently re-invested into education budgets, though some have questioned the transparency of this process.
Members of Cardiff’s UCU branch described how the solidarity and understanding shown by students during last year’s action was overwhelming. Union members say that while nobody wants to put students in this position again, they hope that students will understand the necessity of these strikes.
Cardiff University issued a statement last week: “Whilst we fully respect the right of staff to take part in legal industrial action our priority is providing education students. The University cannot solve the pensions dispute on its own. That’s why we welcome the fact that Universities UK have said that they remain open to further talks with UCU to discuss how the dispute can be resolved without industrial action.”