MEMBERS of the University and College Union (UCU) at the University of Bath and the University of Bristol are joining the latest wave of nationwide strikes when they walk out in a row over pay and conditions tomorrow, Friday 17 June.
Staff at the universities have timed their action to hit open days for potential students and their parents. Staff will lobby parents and students as they arrive to explain more about the union’s campaign for fair pay and better conditions.
At Bath, UCU members are on picket lines from 7.30am outside the main entrances to the campus. Over at Bristol, staff are on picket lines from 8.30am outside the university at the junction of Woodland Road and Tyndall Avenue. They are also holding a rally outside Senate House at 10:30am.
The dispute has arisen following a pay offer of just 1.1% from the universities’ employers, UCEA. UCU says universities could afford to pay more and the latest offer did 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 enjoying a 6.1% pay hike.
The union has also called for universities to commit to closing the gender pay gap and reducing the proportion of staff on casual and zero-hours contracts. On average, female academics across the sector are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts while 49% of university teachers are on insecure contracts.
Since 2010, the amount spent on staff by 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. So far staff have already walked out at six other universities after Winchester started this new wave of targeted strikes last Friday (10 June).
This week staff at Edinburgh, Kent, Sussex, Glasgow and the University of West of Scotland have also walked out after union members voted to escalate their action earlier this month.
UCU regional official, Nick Varney, said: ‘UCU members at Bath and Bristol are joining targeted strike action this week because they have had enough of their pay being held down, while a few at the top continue to be paid handsomely. Members have been left with no alternative but to escalate their industrial action after universities refused to come back to the negotiating table with a fair offer.
”Too many staff are on contracts more associated with Sports Direct than higher education and universities need to engage with us to stamp out insecure contracts and the gender pay gap.’
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.
Staff at the University of Sussex were on strike yesterday, causing disruption to the process of awarding degree marks, in a row over pay. University and College Union members at Sussex who would normally be taking part in examination boards in the Schools of Law; Politics and Sociology; Business, Management and Economics; Life Sciences; Psychology and Global Studies, did not attend them.
Examination boards are now in the process of awarding degree marks. Members were on a picket line on Southern Ring Road opposite Falmer House, on the pathway that joins the A27 Lewes Road to Falmer Railway station, and on the Knights Gate Road entrance to the campus, from 7am-3pm.
UCU members leafleted members of the university Senate – a body comprising of senior staff, as well as external examiners, asking them not to attend meetings scheduled that day.
University of Sussex UCU branch secretary, Tom Frost, said: ‘We are fighting for fair pay and 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 the rewards of increased money for universities. Nobody wants to take industrial action, but clearly enough is enough.
‘Members at Sussex 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.’
• Campaigners launched an alternative higher education white paper on Monday evening in Westminster. Presenting the case for an education system that delivers research addressing social and scientific challenges, defends academic freedoms and seeks to provide an education to the next generation that is not simply a narrow focus on the acquisition of qualifications, the publication argues that critical skills are necessary to meet the challenge of business and for inclusive democratic engagement.
Speakers at the event in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House hosted by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, include University and College Union vice-president Joanna de Groot, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and the paper’s editor Professor John Holmwood from the University of Nottingham.
The alternative white paper is particularly critical of the government’s obsession with bringing untried for-profit education providers into the UK university system, and failing to defend the values of public higher education. It warns that instead of following the example of America we should be learning lessons from its mistakes.
UCU has been a leading critic of the US system that the government has sought to emulate, highlighting how students have derisory graduation rates, crushing levels of debts and degrees of dubious value.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: ‘We need an education system that puts students, pioneering research and academic freedom at its heart. The government’s narrow focus on qualifications and allowing for-profit companies to enter the university market cannot achieve this. This white paper sets out a clear vision for an alternative system and should kick-start the debate about what higher education should be for and what it looks like.’