Why are we taking action on pay when the employers have offered a 1.8% pay rise?

The employers’ offer is below inflation, meaning yet another real term pay cut for staff. The value of pay in higher education has fallen by around 20% since 2009; meanwhile employers have failed to take effective action to tackle the persistent gender and race pay gaps that exist in our sector. We need to send a strong signal that we won’t tolerate continued pay erosion or pay inequality.

Why are we linking pay, workload and casualisation in one dispute?

The pay and equality ballot is about demanding fair treatment for staff across the sector. The combination of pay erosion, unmanageable workloads and the widespread use of insecure contracts has undermined professionalism and made the working environment more stressful for staff. The average working week in higher education is now above 50 hours, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. Meanwhile more than 100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do. We need to ensure that careers in higher education remain attractive for the future – that means taking a coordinated approach to tackling these problems that affect staff across the sector.

Why is tackling casualisation a priority for the pay ballot?

Casualisation is rife within higher education: 70% of researchers in HE are employed on fixed-term contracts, while many more have contracts which are dependent on funding. A whopping 37,000 teaching staff are employed on fixed-term contracts, and a further 71,000 teachers are employed as ‘atypical academics’. The use of casual contracts erodes the rights, protections and security that should be afforded to all employees. Casualisation also makes it much more difficult for staff to challenge employers about key workplace issues, because staff are often reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ and risk their employment being terminated. Finally, casualisation has real material consequences for staff – UCU’s research showed that 42% of staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills, while many others struggle to make long-term financial commitments like buying a house.

What sort of action might I be asked to take if the ballot is successful?

A strong vote for industrial action means that, if the employers fail to meet UCU’s demands, we will have significant leverage to change their minds, as we have done before. While our preferred option is to resolve the dispute through negotiation without any disruption to students, the employers need to know that we are serious and prepared to hit hard with industrial action if needed. For that reason the HEC has discussed taking up to 14 days of strike action beginning in the middle of November, as well as action short of a strike in the form of working to contract. If the employers still aren’t willing to bring forward an acceptable offer after sustained strike action, we also have the option of deploying a marking and assessment boycott.

Won’t industrial action cause unnecessary disruption to my students?

The decision to take industrial action is never taken lightly, but the stakes in this dispute are high. We’re fighting to keep higher education careers sustainable, not just for now but for the future when many of those students may be working in HE themselves; decent pay and conditions are central to that aim.  We are pleased that NUS has also issued a joint statement with us, offering support and solidarity from students in both the USS and HE pay disputes.

Questions for students

Q: will seminars be rearranged?

A: The UCU has instructed members not to cover any lessons affected by strike action or rearrange lessons to non-strike days (this would negate the effect of the strike day).  A strike is meant to be a disruption, and to be as impactful as possible, we need students to join striking staff on the pickets – standing up in defence of education. The bigger splash we make early on, the better chance we have of victory!

Q: I’ve asked my tutor if they will be striking and they have not responded?

A: There are several different reasons why this might be the case. Staff do not have to indicate in advance if they are striking and can refuse to answer when asked by their university. This is because a staff member might not have decided yet or it might be that they intend to give the session, but on the day decide they cannot cross a picket line.

Q: What does “supporting your right to strike” entail? Can we meet ourselves to conduct the seminars?

A: Many local branches will be holding teach-outs (Goldsmiths will be). It’s worth getting in touch with your local branch – they should come up with a timetable at some point which you can then circulate to students. And ask students for suggestions!

Q: Does the above answer include informal seminars undertaken at a different time or place – so, outside of strike times? What if the students come to the picket lines but then, say, meet on a non-strike day to conduct their own seminar?

A: What students decide to do on non-strike days is, of course, up to them. As long as you’re with us on the pickets! And as long as you appreciate that UCU staff will not be working.