Staff across the University will go on strike at the end of the month, unless a dispute over pay can be resolved.
Joint action between the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), Unite and Unison will see university staff across the UK hit the picket line on 31 October.
UCU represents tutors and lecturers and has around 120,000 members across the UK. In St Andrews, around 400 of 1,150 academic staff are UCU members.
Unite’s membership embraces technicians, laboratory assistants, administrators and facility management staff. The union has about 20,000 members in higher education.
Unison represents other support staff, such as cleaners and estates workers, and also has around 20,000 members working in higher education.
This is the first strike over pay by University staff since 2006 and is the first time that all three unions have combined their action. The joint nature of the strike means that some teaching may be cancelled and some buildings may be closed because support staff will have walked out.
The debate over pay has been ongoing for a number of years. UCU claims that its members have not received a meaningful pay rise since 2008. Staff have been offered a pay rise of just one per cent this year, which means that in the past four years their pay has fallen by 13 per cent in real terms.
Earlier this month Will Hutton, writing for the Observer about how to change the way universities are funded, called this pay cut “one of the largest sustained wage cuts any profession has suffered since the second world war.”
UCU says that “cumulative operating surplus in the higher education sector is now over £1 billion and many higher education institutions have built up cash reserves. Overall staff costs in higher education, as a proportion of income, have fallen from 58% in 2001/02 to 55.5% in 2011/12.”
Unison argues that job security is decreasing with the use of zero hour contracts and around 4,000 employees across the UK now being paid below the living wage.
The University of St Andrews was one of a number of Scottish universities who were criticised for their use of zero hour contracts. It emerged that St Andrews employed 51 people on zero hour contracts last year. Although this is a relatively low number compared to other universities, the unions have called for universities to follow the lead of the University of Edinburgh and ban the contracts altogether.
During the summer break the University introduced a minimum wage of £7.53 per hour for all staff. They have not signed up to be a living wage accredited employer, however, leaving open the option to return to paying staff below the living wage (for outside London) of £7.45.
The pension and pay packages of senior university staff were also criticised by the unions. The average pay and pensions package for vice-chancellors has now hit almost £250,000, according to the annual Times Higher Education-Grant Thornton pay survey. The unions have argued that this is unfair when other staff are facing a pay squeeze. A recent report by Young Greens, the youth and student branch of the Green party, found that the pay gap between the highest and lowest earners at universities is the highest in the public sector.
Last year the University principal and vice-chancellor Louise Richardson was criticised by NUS Scotland as her pay for the financial year 2011/12 reached £271,000, resulting in a pay gap of 18:1 between the University’s lowest and highest earners.
Former president of NUS Scotland Robin Parker argued: “There are 88 senior staff members at Scottish universities who earn more than the first minister, and across our institutions the gap between the lowest and highest paid is too large, with some receiving almost 20 times that of the lowest paid university employee.”
Tom Jones, branch honorary treasurer of the UCU at St Andrews, explained how students can support staff: “UCU St Andrews will be actively participating in the strike action of 31 October 2013. For the first time in many years all three campus unions (Unison, Unite and UCU) will be taking industrial action on the same day.
“Joint action may mean that in addition to some teaching being cancelled, other University services will be disrupted, and possibly closed altogether. That all three unions are taking this action is an indication of how seriously their combined membership regards the failure of employers to enter into meaningful negotiations over pay.
“The decision to take this combined action shows that employees will not tolerate year-on-year below inflation pay increases, and a continued effort to spend less of universities’ income on staff, at a time when that income is growing, and vice-chancellors and principals are awarded large pay increases.
“UCU members always take the effect of industrial action on students very seriously, and regret being forced into this disruptive move. Together with the other campus unions we have already met with the Students’ Association to discuss the reasons for industrial action, and its consequences.
“We urge students to support us in the action. One form of action students can take is to write to the principal and ask her to use her influence with the University and College Employers’ Association (the employers’ negotiating body) to get them to return to talks and make a better offer. Paying staff reasonably for the work they do will make the University a better place to study.”
The head of higher education for Unison, Jon Richards, said: “Our members are upset and angry – this measly 1% offer is simply not good enough. The work of support staff is essential for the smooth running of universities and they play a vital role supporting students, but many are struggling to survive on low pay.
“The gap between prices and pay has widened since this government came to power and trying to feed a family and heat a home is a daily worry. The fact that staff are willing to take strike action shows how desperate they feel. The employers should take note and come back with a more realistic offer.’
The Unite national officer for education, Mike McCartney, said: “Our members have had enough of the poverty pay increases of recent years. They have suffered a 13 per cent real terms pay cut since 2008 and have been left with no option but to fight for what’s fair. There is still time for the employers to step back from the brink in this dispute. We urge them to get back around the negotiating table with the three unions to resolve it once and for all.”
The University of St Andrews was unavailable for comment on the upcoming industrial action.
Editorial: We stand behind our academic staff