The winter academic semester drew to an early close for some students this year as staff from 60 universities joined nationwide strikes to protest rising pension costs and declining pay and working conditions.
The University and College Union (UCU) coordinated an eight-day strike action from Monday 25th November to Wednesday 4th December. The trade union first balloted for the action in September after a report revealed staff were paying increasingly more for their pension but losing tens of thousands of pounds in retirement because of changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
In the ballot regarding these changes to private pension schemes, 79% of UCU members backed strike action, while 74% of polled members backed strike action in the ballot on pay, casualisation, equality and workloads.
University staff strike to protest pension costs UCU general secretary Jo Grady: “It is incredibly frustrating that the employers won’t deal with all the issues at the heart of this dispute.
“Universities cannot simply ignore the pay element, and if they continue to do so then staff will continue to strike.”
More than 40,000 academic staff including lecturers, researchers, technicians and librarians took part in the strike, and 3,500 joined the union in the three weeks since the action was announced.
The universities affected include many of the most prestigious in the UK, including Oxford, Durham, University College London, Edinburgh and Cambridge.
Ms Grady said: “We have been receiving news of solid support for the strikes across the UK. That support sends a clear message to universities that staff will not settle for pay cuts, increased pension costs or deteriorating conditions.”
She said universities were given plenty of notice about the strikes but showed no urgency in their response to the underlying issues at the heart of the movement.
The union criticised “out of touch” vice-chancellors who had enjoyed huge salary increases and free accommodation while claiming minor expenses.
UCU members continued to engage in ‘actions short of a strike’ once the strike was over, such as working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.
UCU’s Scotland official Mary Senior said: “Strike action is always the last resort, but universities’ refusal to deal with the key issues of increased pension costs, pay and working conditions leave no alternative.
“It is unbelievable that universities have not done more to work with us to try and find a way to resolve these disputes.”
Many students stood in solidarity with their teachers at picket lines despite forceful tactics employed by the institutions to prevent student involvement.
The University of Liverpool was particularly criticised after it reportedly told international students they risked jeopardising their visas if they chose not to cross picket lines to attend classes.
A report published in November by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association found that half of all academics were working on temporary contracts and staff pay had dropped by 17% since 2009.
The strike marked the second round of widespread industrial action at universities in less than two years, and the union has already warned that further waves of strike action could follow in the new year.