Written by Harry Webster |
Tomorrow, University and College Union members will return a vote on whether or not to pursue industrial action in response to what the UCU is calling a failure on the part of employers to “offer a serious response” on a number of critical issues currently facing staff.
This follows a series of strike actions during the previous academic year, in protest to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS for short) pension programme. This would effectively have brought an end to guaranteed pension benefits.
Over 65 Universities and Higher Education institutions- including University of Exeter Cornwall campuses – saw 14 days of strike action, beginning on the 22nd of February and continuing at some institutions up until the 20th March, in the biggest industrial action ever seen in Higher Education.
According to the UCU’s website; it was “the unprecedented high level of participation in the ballot and subsequent strike action” that resulted in “a complete withdrawal of the employers’ proposals and agreement to an independent review of the USS valuation.”
In the wake of these industrial actions, the five trade unions for Higher Education – Unite, Unison, GMB, EIS and UCU – submitted the Joint Higher Education Trade Union National Claim to the UCEA prior to the commencement of negotiation meetings on March 26th this year.
The claim demanded an increase in pay, A living wage for all staff, action to close the gender pay gap by 2020, action on precarious contracts, and a nationally-agreed framework for payment to recognise excessive workloads.
“Meanwhile, the average Vice-Chancellor’s salary has skyrocketed to £289,756”
These demands have apparently been a long time in the making. According to the UCU’s Campaign Against Casualisation Annual Report last year, HE staff salaries have declined in real terms by 21% since 2009, and 54% of all academic staff now find themselves on casual or insecure contracts. Meanwhile, the average Vice-Chancellor’s salary has skyrocketed to £289,756, according to the same report.
In an article for medium.com commending the UCU and imploring members to vote in support of further strike actions, The NUS Post-Graduate Campaign has dubbed this sort of policymaking “the Neoliberalisation of Higher Education”, describing it as having “catastrophic effects” both for staff and students.
The outcome of these negotiations was an offer from the UCEA of a 2% pay increase, and proposed reforms regarding casualisation and the gender pay gap which the UCU deemed unsatisfactory, with 82% of its members voting to reject the deal in a subsequent ballot.
The ballot for further strike actions opened on August 30th and will close on Tuesday 16th October.
However, due to new trade union legislation 50% of members at each institution must now cast a vote in order for strike action to be legal.
Despite this failure to secure a deal between the Trade Unions and the UCEA, some institutions do seem to be acting independently to assume responsibility to improve conditions for their staff.
This includes the University of Exeter, which announced that it will now begin employing postgraduate students who work regular or pre-scheduled hours on annual contracts – thereby giving them access to the USS pension scheme, amongst other benefits – in an email to staff from Vice-Chancellor Steve Smith last month.
Though this may seem like a conciliatory move on the part of the University; given that the other aspects of the joint claim do not seem to have been actionably addressed, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to quell the current dispute.
If the ballot returns a yes vote this Tuesday, we may yet see further strikes going ahead on campus.