Support the UK’s biggest ever HE strikes

This Thursday (20 February), workers across the higher education sector will be taking strike action over pensions, pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.

UCU strikers in Oxford, December 2019. Photo: John Walker

Members of the UCU union at 74 universities will begin 14 days of strikes on Thursday. Several different disputes have come together in an industrial dispute that raises fundamental questions about the future of Higher Education in the UK. The combination of the number of institutions striking plus the number of days lost to strike action in addition to the 8 days before Christmas make this the biggest ever UK university strike.

Pensions

One of the disputes concerns pensions in pre-1992 universities. Changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) since 2011 have left workers having to pay more in, while looking forward to receiving much lower benefits in the future. Strike action in 2018 already forced employers to halt a radical redesign of the scheme but still employers are dragging their feet on rolling back the increased costs they have imposed on workers.

The pensions dispute is part of several wider struggles. One is over who should pay for ensuring workers have a decent retirement: around the world, employers and governments are trying to shift the burden onto workers.

Another is over the future of the higher education sector. The USS is a collective scheme across pre-1992 universities. Some of the richest institutions now want to opt out, as in the case of Trinity College in Cambridge. The leadership of some of the richer institutions want to go it alone, undermining the rest of the sector.

Pay, Equality, Casualisation and Workloads

Workers at both pre- and post-1992 higher education institutions are also taking strike action over falling pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, casualization and workloads. Pay has fallen by almost 20% in real terms in the last decade. The average working week in the sector is over 50 hours, and over 100,000 casualised teaching staff are paid for only 55% of their work. Women in UK universities are paid on average 15.9% less per hour than their male colleagues. Meanwhile black academic staff are paid 14% less than white academic staff and are far less likely to hold senior jobs than their white colleagues.

Growing confidence

The scale of the industrial dispute is growing, as 14 more institutions have now reached the 50% ballot turnout needed to take legal strike action under existing trade union law.

UCU members will now be joined by their comrades in the Educational Institute of Scotland. There will also be a strike by UNISON members at SOAS beginning on Thursday 20 February. This creates potential for really strong pickets at an institution which has been at the sharp end of higher education cuts for some time, and where just last month there was a wildcat strike over appalling cuts to research leave and GTA cover. However, solidarity will be crucial since many workers are fearful that strike action will put the future of the institution at stake.

Join the picket lines to show solidarity, and send us in your reports, photos and videos to rs21editorial@gmail.com.

A useful guide to which institutions are striking on which days is available here.

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