There appears to be something of a bidding war taking place among United Kingdom universities to see which can appear the most generous in terms of cash handouts to help staff cope with soaring inflation as winter approaches, despite the looming three days of strike action due to start on 24 November.
The University and College Union (UCU) has declared what it claims will be the biggest ever strike to hit UK campuses in a dispute over pay, conditions and pensions following an ‘overwhelming’ vote for industrial action in two national ballots among union members.
The union estimates that over 70,000 university staff at 150 universities will strike for three days later this month, on Thursday 24 November, Friday 25 November and Wednesday 30 November.
Some union members will also begin industrial action short of strike action from Wednesday 23 November, which includes working to rule, refusing to make up work lost as a result of strike action and refusing to cover for absent colleagues.
Pensions, pay and contracts
The strike over pensions involves institutions that are part of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). These are mainly, but not entirely, pre-1992 UK higher education institutions, and the dispute involves cuts to the retirement funds of the 200,000 university staff in the pension scheme.
The union claims that Universities UK forced through the cuts in April 2022, which included a cut to pension accrual rates and a cap on protection against inflation, because of a valuation of the scheme conducted in March 2020 as markets collapsed and a deficit of £14.1 billion (US$16.8 billion) was recorded for the scheme.
Since then, the union says investments have recovered and, according to the most recent trustee data, the scheme holds a £1.8 billion surplus.
Many UCU members are striking over both pay and pensions, as a list provided by the union outlines. The action is also being linked by the union to a fight against “casual and insecure contracts”.
The UK’s National Union of Students issued a statement on 5 November from Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, its vice-president for higher education, expressing “solidarity with staff who have voted for industrial action”, and local UCU branches are busy trying to explain their action to their students.