Strike action ballots for the University and College Union (UCU), the world’s largest further and higher education trade union of academic and academic-related staff, closed yesterday (30th October) across 69 universities where staff have been voting on whether to approve strike action, or action short of a strike, since 9th September. The strike ballots relate to the ongoing disputes over workload, salary and pensions, equality and casualisation between UCU, and the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension scheme catering for university staff (including senior administrative staff) with over £50 billion under management. The UCU’s higher education committee (HEC) will then convene to review the votes of its some 120,000 members, with the result expected on Friday 1st November.
February and March of last year witnessed unprecedented strike action across 61 university campuses in a bid to overturn USS pension changes which saw an estimated loss of £10,000 per annum from some pension pots to as much £200,000 over the course of members’ retirements. The strike action affected upwards of an estimated million students and resulted in UCU members losing 14 days’ pay. The disagreement over the alleged mismanagement and misevaluation of USS creating a deficit, has seen the transferral of pension costs to members with staff pension contributions currently set at 8.8% of their salaries, this is proposed to rise to 9.6%, following a meeting of the USS Joint Negotiating Committee in August. Allegations of USS mismanagement saw the pension scheme’s highest paid executive benefit from an alleged 50% pay increase in 2014, taking his annual salary to £900,000. The current strike action ballots are part of UCU’s warning to universities to agree to a maximum member contribution of 8% while proposing that universities themselves foot any additional required payments.
A separate ballot has been running concurrently across the 69 universities considering strike action ballots and a further 78 higher education institutions across the UK. This second ballot relates to equality, workload, and pay, the latter having fallen in real-terms by 17% in the last decade, a period which has witnessed UK universities report annual surpluses of as much as £2.27 billion for 2016/17. An estimated half of all UK academics are on short-term contracts, according to research conducted by UCU in 2016, and work upwards of two days unpaid each week on average, while the gender pay gap sits at 15.9%.
The Secretary General of UCU, Jo Grady, visited Queen’s on Monday 21st October as part of her UK wide tour to address UCU members and garner support for the strike action ballots. “One of the things [Grady] made clear is that the current strike ballot is not simply about pay and pensions, but the shape of the university sector itself,” comments Diarmuid Kennedy, Honorary Secretary of the UCU branch at Queen’s. “[Grady] spoke with feeling about UK universities’ shameful record on casualisation and equality. UKHEs ought to be leading by example in terms of employment practice […] instead, many seem to have adopted the worst kinds of exploitative employment models. […] She pointed out that the UK university sector currently has no credible national plan for addressing the race and gender pay gaps, or a national framework for reducing precarious employment”. Kennedy underlined Grady’s focus on the impact unfair pay and working conditions have on students, commenting how “UCU […] are defending the soul of the university system – if unfair pay, working conditions and inequality continues, then the sector is in real danger. […] It sends a bad message to students if the institutions that educate them can’t treat their staff in a fair way […] and also denigrates the quality of education that the students are getting”.
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