University strikes: Will classes be cancelled?

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Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Staff at 74 universities held a 14-day strike over pensions, pay, and conditions last year.

Staff at dozens of universities are striking this week.

Why are university staff striking?

Some are striking over pay and conditions, others over pensions - but for most of those taking action, it is both.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents staff at institutions across the UK, has demanded:

  • a £2,500 pay increase for members
  • an end to "pay injustice" and zero-hours contracts
  • action to tackle "unmanageable workloads"

Meanwhile, having been rumbling on for nearly a decade, the dispute over pensions has been reignited because of what the UCU described as a "flawed valuation" of a pension scheme used by academic staff, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The UCU said the valuation had been "carried out at the start of the pandemic, when global markets were crashing" and would lower members' guaranteed retirement income by 35%.

When are the strikes - and where?

Staff are walking out for three days, from Wednesday 1 to Friday 3 December, at 58 universities, including some of the UK's biggest in terms of student numbers - such as the Open University, University College London and the University of Manchester.

But to put that number in context, last year 271 UK higher-education providers submitted data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Image caption,
This map shows the towns and cities where there will be strikes

Will classes be cancelled?

Staff who are not UCU members or do not support the strike may choose to keep working.

But the affected universities cannot say which classes will go ahead, because the union members are not required to tell them whether they will walk out.

Lots of universities have, however, told students they want to minimise the disruption and advised them to attend classes going ahead.

And some have encouraged students to ask their lecturers and tutors to let them know if they are striking, "as a courtesy".

What do universities say about pensions?

Universities UK (UUK), an organisation representing 140 institutions, says the UCU strikes over pensions are not representative of how most staff feel.

The UCU says 76% of its members who voted in a recent ballot backed strike action over pensions.

But UUK says fewer than 10% of eligible pension-scheme members actually voted "Yes" to strike action in this ballot.

There are three things to consider here:

  • not all staff at the relevant universities are UCU members
  • not all UCU members voted
  • not all UCU members who voted supported the strike action

UUK has also pointed out of 68 universities covered by the UCU's ballot, staff are striking at 37.

A spokesman has previously said "strike action will not address the urgent need for reform to keep the scheme affordable" and the UUK is "fully committed to continuing talks" about the scheme's future.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Employers say strikes will further disrupt students' education, after more than a year learning in the pandemic

What do universities say about pay and working conditions?

The UCU says 70% of its members who voted in a separate ballot backed strike action over pay and working conditions.

But the Universities and College Employers Association (UCEA), which has 174 member organisations, called the outcome of this ballot "patchy".

Of 146 universities covered by this ballot, staff will be striking at 54.

And the UCEA chief executive has previously called industrial action an "unrealistic attempt to try to force" all 146 employers to reopen a concluded national pay round, "aimed at harming students".

On casual contracts and workload, he said: "We have made repeated offers of joint work in these areas for two years but UCU has rejected them.

"UCEA genuinely wishes to engage on these matters as far as we can at a national level, noting that they are ultimately for local negotiations."

Will there be more strikes?

The UCU said this disruption could be avoided if employers would "get round the table" and take concerns "seriously".

But the strikes are going ahead - and the UCU says it is "likely" more will follow in the new year.

Last week, it announced fresh ballots at 42 universities, starting from 6 December and closing on 14 January, because "a number of branches narrowly missed" the 50% turnout threshold legally required for a strike.

Which universities are affected?

In total, 33 universities will see strikes over both pay and pensions:

  • Aston University
  • Birkbeck, University of London
  • Durham University
  • Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Keele University
  • King's College London
  • London School of Economics
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Loughborough University
  • Open University
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Soas, University of London
  • The University of Birmingham
  • The University of Dundee
  • The University of Kent
  • The University of Leeds
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The University of Sheffield
  • The University of Stirling
  • University of Bradford
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Essex
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Sussex
  • University of York
  • Queens University Belfast
  • University of Ulster

Another 21 will see strikes over pay only:

  • Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Glasgow School of Art
  • Greenwich University
  • Kingston University
  • Liverpool Hope University
  • Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Roehampton University
  • Royal College of Art
  • Royal Northern College of Music
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Northampton
  • The University of Salford
  • University of the Arts London
  • University College London
  • University of Brighton
  • University of Central Lancashire
  • University of Chester
  • University of Leicester

Four will see strikes over pensions only:

  • Institute of Development Studies
  • Imperial College London
  • University of Bath
  • University of Reading

A further six institutions will not see strikes - but staff did vote for action short of a strike, over pay, which, the UCU says, will also begin on Wednesday and could last for the five months staff have a mandate for and "include strictly working to contract and refusing any additional duties".

The six institutions are:

  • Bishop Grosseteste University
  • Bournemouth University
  • Leeds Trinity University
  • Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts
  • St Mary's University College Belfast
  • University of Winchester

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