For Students

So your University and College Union got a mandate for Industrial Action, what now?

You will have heard that UCU, the University and College Union, is taking industrial action. The questions below should help to give some information about what we already know this means. Check our Twitter for up to date information.

The strike dates that have been indentified by UCU are November 24th, 25th and 30th. Assuming a settlement is not agreed by each of those dates staff at the university will be on strike on those days.

What is industrial action at university?

Industrial Action is a collective agreement to organise among employees as a way to compel a powerful employer to negotiate, usually as a position of last resort after conventional attempts at negotiation have failed. Striking is lawful. Historically, strikes have played a major role in securing workers’ rights, safe working conditions, and fair rates of pay in many kinds of employment around the world.

Industrial Action can take many forms:

  • When it is a strike, that means employees withdraw all labour and lose all pay the time they are on strike. For students, this will be most visible in teaching activities not taking place. But UCU’s membership also includes librarians, technicians, administrators and other university staff, so various other activities are also affected. The provisional strike days are on November 24th, 25th and 30th 2022.
  • Industrial Action can also be ‘Action Short of a Strike’ (ASOS), which includes working to contract (most  UCU members normally work well beyond the full-time hours they are paid for), not covering for absent colleagues. As this is working to contract, that should not affect pay, but at Wolverhampton, senior management have in the past imposed a policy of 100% pay deductions, for hourly strikes and are likely to do the same for ASOS. So if staff work the hours their contract says they should work, they still don’t get paid.
  • Another form of ASOS is the refusal to mark assessments. The ‘marking boycott’ threatened graduation and shut down progression in the summer of 2022. University of Wolverhampton management could not ignore workers’ calls for negotiation this way, and for the first time in years they engaged meaningfully with staff.

What is the dispute about?

The dispute ties together a number of problems that are fundamentally reshaping the nature of higher education in the UK:

  • Casualisation: many staff are living on precarious, short-term contracts and often don’t know in the summer whether they’ll have an income in September.
  • Rates of pay: have fallen steadily in real terms and are now worth around three-quarters of their 2009 value. This makes embarking on a career in universities the privilege of the independently wealthy.
  • Systemic inequality, with a particular focus on the longstanding gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps
  • Workload and working conditions, with a focus on manageable hours and reducing levels of stress and ill health. Spiralling workloads and out-of-balance staff-student-ratios means students in 2022 do not receive the kind of attention and education staff would want to provide and which they were able to provide a mere couple of years ago.

Technically a separate dispute – but likely to be coordinated alongside the other one – is an attempt to resolve long-running problems with the management of USS, the pension scheme used mainly by UCU members at older universities. That pension scheme has slashed pensions by roughly 35-50% based on a valuation of the fund from March 2020, when the world had crashed. Members have been challenging this sham slashing in multiple ways, including via courts, but USS has refused to reverse its cuts. Thus far.

Who benefits from successful strikes?

In short: everyone. The university as a whole would improve by engaging meaningfully with the collective unions’ proposals. Announcing action is to encourage employers to talk about proposals submitted in spring by all university unions – UCU (as the union for teaching and professional service staff) as well as Unison, Unite, GMB, and EIS. Concretely, university life would be improved in the following ways:

  • We’d get pay justice: the negotiations with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) are on behalf of all university workers: lecturers, administrators, cleaners, porters, maintenance staff, lecturers, Teaching Associates, post-graduate students who teach: everyone who keeps universities running. Under the current UCU mandate, teaching and professional service staff withdraw their labour and sacrifice their salary in this action to may pay better for everyone, in UCU or not. Improving pay will end pay injustice and close the gender, race, and disability pay gaps.
  • Unison, who at Wolverhampton represent cleaners, porters, library staff, maintenance, and many other departments that keep the university afloat, is also balloting members to undertake action in support of these proposals. In the past, collaboration between UCU and Unison has led to important improvements. Thanks to collective action, there is improvement, but the pay is still not enough, nor the historic injustice addressed.
  • Universities would be more inclusive and representative of the population at large and student body in particular. The current real-term pay cuts and pension cuts mean that soon only the independently wealthy will be able to afford to work in higher education. This would undo the years of work that staff and student groups have spent attempting to democratise universities. Fighting these cuts is to prevent entire groups from being excluded from participating in Higher Education, either as workers or students. Higher Education, raising the future generations of leaders, should be open to workers from all backgrounds, not in the least because students deserve and need to see themselves and society represented.
  • Workload would be sustainable, and learning conditions improve. To secure tuition fees, universities have increased student recruitment exponentially, while the number of secure contracts have not grown in the same line. The spiralling student-staff ratio results in staff not having the capacity nor time to ensure students receive the attention which staff would like to give them, which students mere years ago did get, and which students had been promised as they registered. Manageable workloads mean adequate attention to students’ development, assignments, wellbeing, and futures.
  • Putting a halt to the creeping casualisation and precarity is needed to ensure graduate students and Teaching Assistants stop spending entire summers worrying about whether or not they’ll have any teaching in September, let alone pay. The revolving door of short-term contracts harms students. Teachers on more secure contracts support students developing educational relationships with their teachers in the long term and ensure their access to teachers’ expertise is not dependent on the caprices of (non-)renewal of short-term contracts.

Can’t you protest in a way that doesn’t affect students?

Practically speaking, no. Students are at the heart of the university, and whatever we do to try to improve university will affect students – and we’ve already been doing a lot of work to prevent students from feeling the worst of the impact of managerial decisions, but that is not tenable. Not a single UCU member wishes to disrupt students’ learning experience. And all UCU members recognise that many students have experienced a lot of disruption in recent years.

The UCU view is that the quality of the student learning experience is already badly affected, nationwide, by the problems we’re trying to address, with stressed, underpaid and precarious staff often teaching to excessively large classes amid dysfunctional admin structures. We cannot give the support we want to give.

Unfortunately, it’s clear from long experience that university employers do not acknowledge staff’s alarm cries about unworkable working conditions and the elitist university that’s being created by not paying staff enough and slashing pensions – leaving university careers only to those independently wealth. Only disruption – or the threat of disruption – to teaching or assessment has helped bring employers to talk.

Since we have not been able to achieve meaningful dialogue any other way, we now believe that effective industrial action is the best path to achieving lasting improvements to both the working conditions of staff and the learning conditions of students, this cohort and future cohorts.

Can students do anything?

We all, staff as well as students, want to either avoid industrial action, or, if needed, make it as short as possible. In previous years, the Principal has tried to turn staff and students against each other to demoralise staff. We have learnt that this time, the Principal will even try to make students report on the action of their own teachers. As an effective learning experience is built on trust, this active undermining of relationships will be harmful to the project of higher education.