The successful results of the latest vote on industrial action by UCU (the Universities and Colleges Union) were announced on Monday 24 October. The ballot results represent the latest stage in two long-running disputes in higher education where there has been previous action – over pensions in the pre-1992 universities in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – and over what is called the “four fights,” which include demands on pay, equalities, precarious employment, and workloads and stress.
This is the first time the union has been successful in winning an aggregated (i.e. all together) ballot on both issues, giving it a mandate to call out all institutions in the sector. Today, the union announced three strike dates in November, with over 70,000 UCU members participating in the largest picket lines in the union’s history.
There was an 81% vote for strike action on the “four fights” dispute with a 58% turnout and an 85% vote for strike action over changes with a 60% turnout. This is a significant step forward in the dispute.
The USS pensions dispute first saw large-scale industrial action in 2017, and there have been three waves of strikes on this issue in 2017, 2019, and 2021–2022. The “four fights” dispute led to strikes in 2019 and 2021–2022. But this is the first time we have won an aggregated national ballot in both disputes simultaneously, giving the union a mandate to call out all institutions. This is a significant step forward in the dispute.
Given the anti-union laws, achieving a high enough turnout to take action was a significant challenge. Moving to an aggregated ballot rather than the disaggregated votes used previously represented a gamble for the union. During the previous action in that period, only about half the institutions in the sector were able to go on strike, mostly those pre-1992 universities that were involved in both the pension and the “four fights” disputes.
The union leadership mounted a wide-ranging campaign to secure turnout this time, with a seven-week ballot period coupled with frequent online rallies and a range of publicity. The results are an important success, with an overall national result roughly matching the performance of the institutions with the highest turnouts in previous votes.
The level of involvement of members, especially given the fact that both of these disputes have been continuing for a number of years, is a sign of the deep discontent within the sector. On pay, many years of annual erosion of relative pay levels have now turned into a landslide with a pay offer of 3% for the majority of staff at a time of rampant inflation. On pensions, as changes in interest rates have led to the USS scheme showing a surplus rather than a deficit, it has become more apparent that the motivation for cuts is more about the desire of university management to keep control of funds than about worries over the scheme’s viability.
Meanwhile, the stubborn inequalities in pay and promotion resulting from gender, ethnicity, disability, and other factors continue, as does the reliance on short-term precarious contracts. Increasing workloads and workplace stress have been a feature of the sector for many years but have worsened dramatically as a result of the COVID pandemic, with many institutions using the emergency measures of the last two years as a springboard for widespread changes in working practices and teaching delivery.
All of these factors should be set against the background of broader changes that are reshaping university education. The neo-liberal marketisation of the sector, which began in the 1990s but was sharply intensified by the raising of student fees to £9,000 per year in 2010, has run into a host of contradictions and limits. Despite the rhetoric of austerity that accompanied the rise in fees, the result of the new funding arrangements was an inflow of funds into universities, initially funded by the government as students took out loans for later repayment, or in many cases, were unable to pay back the loans at all. Tory ideologues were prepared to spend money to create a market and embed competition as the guiding principle within the sector.
The consequences of this have been apparent for several years now. Institutions have committed massive amounts of funds to building projects, often in partnership with private companies. Money has also flowed toward dramatic increases in salaries for top management and for “star” academics and toward a wide range of activities primarily devoted to keeping the market mechanism going (marketing departments, various auditing and administrative functions, and so on). The first attempt to make institutions compete on price failed because almost every university chose to charge the most they could.
As a result, the government shifted to competition by numbers, removing the cap on student enrolment and allowing high-prestige institutions (notably the so-called “Russell Group”) to expand dramatically while others saw their recruitment fall. Given the dysfunctional nature of the sector, there has been no political basis for raising student fees, and consequently, institutions have faced increasingly squeezed budgets, especially at a time of high inflation. On top of all this, we have seen losses of income due to COVID and Brexit. Unsurprisingly, debt levels have soared.
The losers in all of this have been the majority of staff and students. Funding for “core” teaching and research has been steadily cut, which has put both staff and students under tremendous pressure, most tragically exemplified in the widely reported difficulties universities have faced in responding to the increasing mental health problems faced by many students, especially following the pandemic. The situation for non-teaching staff has been even worse than for teaching and research academics; contracting out of cleaning, catering, caretaking, and other services has been endemic, despite a few notable successes in bringing services back in house, especially in London. The votes for action last month result from this backdrop.
The scale of the task facing UCU in the current dispute should not be underestimated. As we have seen previously, management is prepared to threaten punitive pay deductions such as docking all pay even for action short of a strike (such as an assessment boycott) on the basis of “partial performance.” They are also prepared to sit out disputes, delaying student graduations if necessary, in the hope that those taking action will get tired or dispirited. As with other parts of the public sector, such as the NHS and schools, university teachers find it hard to take sustained action if this seems to damage the immediate interests of the students with whom they work on a day-to-day basis. Also, institutions that don’t have a lot of money can use the threat of layoffs or course closures to weaken action.
The union has responded to this with widespread consultation amongst the membership about the forms of action to be taken and the scale of escalation of the dispute. This should not be taken lightly; the level of involvement in discussion about the way forward has been significantly greater this time round than previously.
But to win the disputes, we need more. Pressure from the rank-and-file membership upwards within the union in order to gain support when facing the challenges that will undoubtedly occur will be crucial. But we also need to look outwards – to build our links with the other campus trade unions that are not currently taking action, with students, and with the local community. At the same time, we must connect with trade unions in other sectors who are striking this autumn and next spring and work towards joint activity. And the political context is also important; the initial success of the USS pensions dispute in 2017 (before the employers reneged on the deal) was linked to the possibilities opened up by the Corbyn leadership in the Labour Party and the Labour pledge to abolish student fees.
The recent ballot results open up great possibilities, both for UCU as a union and for a movement to reverse the disastrous inequalities that have opened up within higher education over the last fifteen years. But realising these possibilities requires linking the disputes with a broader movement for social change.
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