“Today’s strike is just the start” – UCU leader on pay dispute

UCUThis week, university staff across the UK are walking out for a two-day strike over pay.

UCU members are angry at a miserly 1.1% pay offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. They have seen their pay fall by 14.5% in real terms since 2009, yet universities insist that the 1.1% pay rise is at the absolute of affordability.

However, last year, despite clear calls from government for pay restraint at the top, the average pay and benefits package for university leaders increased by 6.1%. Furthermore, since 2010 the amount spent on staff as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%, while the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to over £21bn.

Pay is not the only issue at stake though. The union’s pay claim also asked universities to commit to action on tackling the gender pay gap in higher education, which currently sits at 12.6%. That means that women are getting paid on average £6,103 per year less than their male counterparts, but sadly the employers have been unwilling to engage properly with UCU on this issue.

Similarly, the employers have failed to take action on the endemic job insecurity in the sector. Many students and parents are probably unaware that half the staff in our universities who deliver teaching do not have a permanent contract.

Unless the employers address these concerns, today’s strike will just be the start. Staff will also begin working to contract from today, which means they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work, or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues.

If no agreement is reached in the coming weeks, members have agreed to further strike action targeting open days and graduation ceremonies in June and July, as well as university clearing in August. The union is also beginning preparations for a boycott of the setting and marking of students’ work.

Strike action which disrupts students is never taken lightly, but after years of growing pay inequality and increasing casualisation, members feel that they have been left with no choice but to act. We are extremely grateful for all the messages of support that have been coming in from students and students’ unions, and the strong support from the National of Union Students.

The national body made it quite clear in their message to us that they believe the most important assets to a university are the people who work and study there. They argue that in order to continue to deliver high quality education, the sector must invest in staff and address the inequality and insecurity that blights our universities.

If universities want to avoid further disruption, they should listen to the staff and students and come back to the table with a fair offer.

  • Sally Hunt is general secretary of the UCU

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