Striking together for Higher Education

On 5 November, the University and College Union (UCU) released its own fireworks, with the announcement of eight days of strike action by academic and academic-related staff across the Higher Education sector. This followed hugely successful ballots on both pay & equality issues and pensions.

This is the biggest ever vote in HE for action over pay, casualisation, workload and equality and brings it together with the unfinished business from the 2018 pensions strike. There will be one full week: 25-29 November, the last day of that week coinciding with the next school student climate strike day, and three days: 2-4 December, ending on UCU’s Disability Day of Action.

Nick Cimini (EIS-ULA) and Grant Buttars (UCU) look at the issues, the action and the different strategies across the sector.

Campaigns to get the vote out delivered the biggest ever vote in HE for action over pay, casualisation, workload and equality. Photo: Cambridge Defend Education (October 2019).


The 2018 strike by UCU members over threats to their Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions sent shock-waves through the HE sector. At its heart were not just the specifics of the threat to pensions but a wider revolt against marketisation within the sector.

It also provoked a revolt within the ranks of UCU as activists, old and new, questioned the strategy that was being pursued by the UCU leadership.  The most visible outcome of this was the election of Jo Grady as General Secretary, a lay member of the union who had come to prominence during the strike. Now, UCU members are mobilising for action again on a much wider scale and over a bigger range of issues.

The issues

The pay & equality dispute hangs on four demands:

  • Address the scandal of the pay gaps: Disability – 8.7%, Women 15.1%, BAME 12-13%
  • An end to contract casualisation and rising job insecurity: 100,000 are on fixed term contracts and a further 70,000 on other types of casual contracts
  • Tackle the rising workloads driving our members to breaking point: academic staff working 50 hour weeks 
  • Pay awards at, or above the rate of inflation: pay has fallen by over 20% in real terms since 2009.

At the same time, pay for Vice Chancellors and senior managers has rocketed.

On pensions, the central issue is that there should be no increases in contributions and no cuts to benefits. The union has completely discredited the valuation on which these changes are based and there is still the justified suspicion that the ultimate intention is to close the defined benefit portion of the scheme altogether.

The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions.

– Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary.

United fight

Although these are technically two separate disputes and not every branch will be involved in everything, this coordinated approach, uniting the fights is crucially important.  During the USS pensions strike of 2018, discussion on the picket lines and meetings was not restricted to discussing pensions alone. Rather, it became the catalyst for a much wider discussion about the marketization of higher education and the resultant overwork, pay inequality and precarity that has come with it.

The aggregation debate

In Scotland, many academic staff in the post-92 universities (the former polytechnic colleges) are represented by the Educational Institute of Scotland – University Lecturers Association (EIS-ULA). The EIS-ULA is a self-governing association of the EIS, which is the oldest education union in the world. 

This time, it was not just UCU which balloted its members. Unison, Unite and (in Scotland) EIS also did so around the pay & equality claim.  Unison, Unite and EIS-ULA all got strong votes for strike action (Unison 60%, Unite 73.3 and EIS-ULA 84.2%) but are prevented from taking action under anti-union legislation. There is potential for re-balloting, including UCU branches who also did not make it over the 50% turnout threshold.

Over the past couple years, there have been fairly lively debates on the executive committee of the EIS-ULA over whether or not to aggregate or disaggregate their ballots for industrial action. On each occasion, the majority decision has been to aggregate. The evidence now suggests a need to rethink this tactic. 

Supporters of aggregated ballots have argued that HE pay and pensions disputes are collective and UK-wide disputes. It’s reasonable, therefore, to call for a collective and UK-wide trade union response.

Supporters also argue that the principles underpinning aggregated ballots (collectivism and unity in action) are wider points of principles for the trade union movement. Aggregating the ballot brings the whole movement together and gives us strength in unity, as well as meaning that so-called ‘weaker branches’ aren’t left exposed. The argument goes that by aggregating the ballot it might be possible for ‘stronger branches’ to lift the ‘weaker’ ones over the turnout threshold and into industrial action. Aggregating ballots, from this point of view, is unity in action. 

Unity in action is undoubtedly a noble goal. The reality is, however, that aggregated ballots in HE are an additional and entirely unnecessary obstacle to industrial action under current circumstances. None of the many aggregated ballots run in HE since the introduction of the Trade Union Act have yet managed to achieve the 50% threshold. They have produced only a unity of the graveyard (united in doing nothing) in the face of year after year of attacks on HE staff. 

This reality is also borne out within UCU, whose pay ballot of earlier this year also ran an aggregated ballot, after quite an extensive debate. Again the strategy saw a massive vote for action stall for the same reasons. We need to recognise the limits imposed on us by restrictive trade union laws. The only UK-wide HE industrial action that has taken place since the introduction of the Trade Union Act, the massively inspirational and union-changing grassroots defence USS in UCU, has taken place as a result of disaggregated ballots. 

For the purposes of this discussion, there are two key things that can be learned from the ongoing USS dispute. First, the original disaggregated ballots allowed the ‘stronger’ branches to take action and subsequently inspired others over the threshold in further disaggregated reballots later in the dispute. Second, and more profoundly, the original disaggregated ballot led to a series of events that eventually culminated in a revitalised UCU and profound grassroots-inspired change in the union.

Disaggregated ballots forced lay union members themselves to take responsibility for getting the vote out. It meant that rank and file members needed to knock on doors, engage directly with their colleagues and not just depend upon a campaign run from headquarters by trade union officials. It is perhaps an unintended and very welcome consequence of the Trade Union Act that forcing members to meet these thresholds could ultimately make the trade union movement stronger.

Wider terrain

As well as the UCU strike, we are likely to see one by postal workers in the CWU, who have already voted for strikes before Christmas in defence of jobs and against plans to dismember the postal service.  We are also in the run-up to the most important general election for decades. 

The outcome of the 12 December will determine the future of post-16 education for years to come.  Whether it is action over pay, pensions, equality, casualisation and workloads, these are essentially about a system brought to crisis point by the marketisation of the HE sector and other public services, driven by the Tories’ neoliberal agenda. The HE strikes can also put the issues of the student debt burden and the toxic competition between institutions at the forefront of the election campaign.

UCU strikes begin on 25 November. Members of the EIS-ULA are meeting on Wednesday 13 November to decide next steps following their ballot result.

In Manchester, Higher Education Climate Strikers are already planning how to link up the struggles in HE with the climate strikes on 29 November. What can you do where you are? Let us know what you are planning – write to


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