University Strike Action- What Does It Mean and Why is it Happening? 

This article was published in our autumn issue in November.

A hot pink wave could potentially hit academic institutions across the country this Autumn. Students may have already spotted the brightly coloured posters around campus bringing attention to the University and College Union (UCU)’s latest campaign: UCU Rising.  

The campaign allows union members to vote on whether they want to strike on several various issues facing academics in the U.K. A similar vote was held in November 2021, which led to a series of strikes over the academic year. This was a disaggregated ballot, meaning individual institutions chose if they wanted to strike. However, this time around, UCU’s strike ballot is aggregated, meaning that if a threshold of 50% for a yes vote is passed, every university and college that has participated in the vote is entitled to go on strike. It’s important to remember, however, that strike action is not necessarily the goal here. It is the threat of a nationwide strike, as opposed to individual and localised ones, that will give the union a much stronger and more powerful voice in negotiations with employers. 

Why exactly is UCU in dispute with employers?  There are two primary disputes that lecturers have been asked to vote on. The first of these disputes is fairly complex but regards pay and working conditions, including the increasing casualisation of the workforce and a pay rise to match inflation. The second relates to staff pensions due to recent cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The USS is the main pension scheme for academics in Britain, and despite strike action over several years by UCU members in institutions across the UK, the scheme received significant cuts in April of this year. On their website, UCU state that this ‘will see a typical lecturer lose at least 35% from their guaranteed retirement income, which for some will rise as high as 41%.’ Years of studying and precarious conditions mean that many academics do not have salaried jobs until at least their late twenties or early thirties. As a result, a good pension is a very important benefit of the job.  

It is easy to sit in a lecture or seminar and see the person teaching you as someone who is privileged, comfortable, and in secure employment, but this is not the case for increasing numbers of lecturers. UCU estimates that nearly 54% of academic staff are on insecure contracts, with this figure being disproportionately comprised of younger academics, women and people of colour. This is the result of a practice called casualisation: where insecure contracts with no fixed hours become the norm. Casualisation leaves many academics in a very difficult position- they have no job security and face an ever-increasing workload, sometimes only paid by the hour (and in some cases even on zero-hour contracts). 

Towards the end of October, staff at UofG, as well as at countless other universities, will wait with baited breath for the result of the UCU Rising vote. But staff shouldn’t be the only ones to pay attention to these results. If academics continue to work under these conditions, it is students’ education that is at risk. 

[Ailbhe nì Mhurhcu – she/her – @Ailvhe]

image credit: @ucunion on instagram


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