Lecturers strike wave across the UK

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UCU strikers at University College London during last month’s strike over pay
UCU strikers at University College London during last month’s strike over pay

THE lecturers strikewave across UK universities is reaching tidal proportions this week, as thousands of University and College Union (UCU) members fight for their jobs, pay and conditions.

The dispute has exploded following the derisory pay offer of just 1.1% from the employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). UCU says universities can afford to pay more and the latest offer does little to address the real-terms pay cut of 14.5% that its members have suffered since 2009.

The squeeze on staff salaries comes despite vice-chancellors receiving a 6.1% pay hike. The union is also demanding that universities commit to closing the gender pay gap and reducing the proportion of staff on casual and zero-hour contracts.

On average, female academics across the sector are paid £6,103 per year less than their male counterparts while 49% of university teachers are on insecure contracts. University of Central Lancashire members went on strike yesterday, missing exam boards – an important part of the degree awarding process.

Michael McKrell, branch chair of the University of Central Lancashire UCU, said: ‘University staff can no longer put up with the continued squeeze on their income.

‘We have suffered years of real-terms pay cuts, constant demands to do more for less and an increase in the numbers of staff employed on insecure contracts.

University of Wolverhampton staff are striking today, timing their action to coincide with exam boards, and will be out on picket lines from 8:30am. Local UCU members are particularly unimpressed by the hypocrisy of their vice-chancellor, Geoff Layer.

On 17 May, Layer wrote to members of staff expressing ‘disappointment’ over their intention to take strike action ahead of the first two days of strike action that took place at the end of May. He also set out his support of the 1.1% pay offer from UCEA.

Just two days later, Layer was revealed to have received a pay hike of 19.6% in a report looking at senior pay in universities. Since 2010 the amount spent on staff by UK universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However, the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to over £21bn.

UCU representative at the University of Wolverhampton, Catherine Lamond, said: ‘University staff can no longer put up with the continued squeeze on their income. We have suffered years of real-terms pay cuts, constant demands to do more for less and an increase in the numbers of staff being employed on the type of contracts you would expect to find in Sports Direct, not at a university.

‘Industrial action is always a last resort, but clearly universities have little understanding of the problems staff face. At Wolverhampton we have a vice-chancellor defending the paltry 1% pay offer while pocketing a 20% hike himself. Enough is enough.’

Staff at the University of Reading are on strike today, Wednesday 22nd June, and are boycotting a staff celebration event organised by the institution to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The news is another blow for the university who had to cancel a planned World Record attempt as part of the 90th birthday celebrations earlier this year when protestors disrupted the event.

Striking UCU members say their boycott of the university’s ‘Staff Summer Celebration’ will send a clear message to university leaders that the real-terms pay cut they have been offered this year is no cause for celebration. University of Reading UCU branch president, Paul Hatcher, said: ‘We are fighting for fair pay and that is why we’re boycotting the university’s staff celebration.

‘What have staff got to celebrate when they’ve suffered a real-terms pay cut of 14.5% since 2009? We’re also taking a stand against the increasing use of insecure contracts which are undermining the academic role, and against the insidious pay inequality that sees many women earning less than men for the same work.’

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: ‘Universities need to recognise that staff will no longer accept their pay being held down while a few at the top enjoy bumper pay rises. Nobody wants to take industrial action, but clearly enough is enough.’

Members at Reading are in the first wave of institutions that will take part in strike action aimed at disrupting open days, graduation ceremonies and key university processes and meetings. More local branches are expected to announce their plans this week after union members voted to escalate their action earlier this month.

As well as walking out last month, UCU members have started working to contract, which means they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work, or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues.

The union has also called on external examiners to resign their positions on exam boards; a move which threatens to disrupt marking this summer when boards meet to discuss challenged marks. External examiners are a crucial part of quality assurance in universities, as each course requires an external examiner to ensure that an institution’s assessment is fair and comparable with others.

An honorary degree ceremony at the University of Oxford and a graduation ceremony at Oxford Brookes University will be targeted by striking staff this week, in a row over pay. UCU members at the University of Oxford will hold a demonstration at the Encaenia Ceremony, where honorary degrees are awarded, outside the Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street, from 10.30am-1.30pm today.

A second demonstration will take place at the entrance to the Encaenia Garden Party at Merton College, Merton Street, from 3.30-5pm. At Oxford Brookes University, union members will target a graduation ceremony and will be leafleting students and their guests, as they enter the Headington campus on Gipsy Lane on Friday.

University of Oxford UCU branch president, Terry Hoad, said: ‘Our action will undoubtedly be disruptive to this prestigious university event but employers must learn they cannot continue treating us with contempt and ignoring the erosion of our pay, particularly given the spiralling cost of housing in Oxford.’

The UCU has urged managers at the University of Leicester to halt plans to cut around 150 jobs, and reverse its decision to close the university’s lifelong learning centre. The university has announced the job losses and centre closure as part of a restructure designed to reduce staff costs by 4.5%, citing a loss of income from overseas student fees as the main reason for the cuts. A voluntary severance scheme was initially offered to staff, but has now closed and the university has indicated that compulsory redundancies will still be required.

The university has also announced that it will close the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, which currently provides a range of adult learning and professional development courses. The closure will affect around 100 staff. UCU regional official, Sue Davis, said: ‘The planned job losses are devastating for staff, and the union remains wholly opposed to any compulsory redundancies.

‘Closing the Vaughan Centre will also be a massive blow to the local community, and will have a serious impact on the university’s efforts to widen participation and encourage local people into higher education. The best way to attract more students to the university is not to cut staff numbers and close courses.’