Photo: Laura Abernethy
Photo: Laura Abernethy

University staff went on strike on Tuesday for the second time this semester as part of a national pay dispute.

Yesterday’s action follows on from a strike on 31 October, when members of the three biggest staff unions – the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), Unison and Unite – hit the picket lines at campuses across the UK.

University employees have received a 13 per cent real terms pay cut in recent years and are frustrated by the lack of negotiation between the unions and the University and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA). Following a national ballot earlier this year, all three unions voted to hold a joint strike for the first time. The second day of action was announced last month by UCU, Unite, Unison and a fourth higher education union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

St Andrews UCU member Steve Reicher explained: “Over the past few years we’ve had a 13 per cent pay cut, larger than virtually any professional group. The University has got the money. There is no doubt that they have the money. The universities as a whole have £1 billion in reserves but they choose not to pay the money on their staff and their staff are their most important asset; not only is it unfair but it’s also foolish. If you do not have a decent basic wage for academic staff, then the brightest and the best are not going to go into academia and academia will suffer as a result. It’s bad for us, it’s bad for the students and it’s bad for the future of the university system.”

The “low impact” of the previous strike has led some to criticise the decision to take further action. UCEA argued that “nine out of ten institutions reported ‘no to low’ impact” at the first strike on 31 October, while at the University of St Andrews only 149 of 2543 staff have confirmed that they took part.

Mr Reicher commented: “I think the more we do and the more we make the point that this University fundamentally depends on the staff, it fundamentally depends on supporting the staff, valuing the staff and showing the good will to staff that staff show to the University. When you look at how this University runs, it wouldn’t run without the staff, it wouldn’t run without people working beyond their contracts or working in the evenings to mark things on time, going on field studies at weekend and so on. We show good will and all we are asking is for good will in return. Inevitably, with any action, the more support we get, the more likely it is that the University administration will have to listen to us.”

Another UCU member, Mike Heasby, added: “We are on strike to support the national pay negotiation. So far, it has not been very successful. It has three aspects – the first part is pay, the second part is about gender equality and the third part is about zero hours contracts. We’re trying to get the employers back to the table to access their £1 billion surplus, which they are currently not thinking about using any of  … to support and motivate staff, who are the University.

“There has been some movement. They said only discussions around pay should be done at a national level but I believe there has been a movement at the suggestion that gender equality is also something that they should be looking at. For those taking the action, it makes it worthwhile.”

There were fewer people on the picket lines yesterday than in October and the majority of them were UCU members. UCU secretary Matt Southern said: “This isn’t just about academic staff, this is also about the cleaners, this is about the people clean up after us, make our food, do the maintenance of the University. They are paid so little that they can’t actually afford to come out and take action and I think that is precisely why we have to – because we can.”

Photo: Laura Abernethy
Photo: Laura Abernethy

A UCEA spokesperson commented on yesterdays’ strike across the UK: “Less than 5% of staff voted for industrial action, so it is no surprise that [yesterday’s] strike action is similar to the action on 31 October which caused very limited disruption. As the trade unions attempt to string this dispute out, UCEA’s 150 participating HE employers confirmed that the pay increase offered is sustainable, fair and final. The trade unions are continuing to press for unaffordable increases that would push pay costs even higher than the 3% already committed, and put jobs at risk. Institutions value their staff highly and already offer excellent pay and conditions but they are also concerned to safeguard jobs and will continue to protect students.

“Industrial action that tries to damage the student experience is always disappointing to employers. But…the trade union activists are bound to feel disappointed because of the low turnout and insignificant impact across the sector. The overwhelming majority of staff realise that the unions’ continuing demands for higher pay increases are neither affordable nor sustainable – they have no wish to see disruption to their institutions and their students. UCEA still remains willing to discuss the other important aspects of the trade unions’ claim, having already offered joint work on the gender pay gap and on hourly-paid and casual work.”

While there has been pressure on real wages across the UK economy during the economic downturn, actual earnings in HE have not seen anything like the decline that the unions are claiming. It is perplexing that the trade unions continue to deny the real earnings growth that HE staff have seen over the past decade and to portray any surpluses as if they were a pot of unallocated money. Surpluses are vital margins and needed to make up for cuts in capital funding so that institutions can reinvest in high quality teaching and research facilities for students and staff.”

The Students’ Association, which supported the strike on 31 October, did not officially support yesterday’s action because the SRC had not held a vote on the matter.

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