The strike in 2018 saw over 800 staff members protest changes to their pensions Louis Ashworth

Based on the 2018 strike turnout, hundreds of academic-related staff will take to the picket lines on Monday for eight days of industrial action, ending on Wednesday 4th December. According to the University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic-related staff, including graduate students, at the 60 UK institutions taking strike action next week, the dispute concerns “pay and working conditions, and rising pension costs.”

Undergraduate finalists may remember last year’s strike action in February, when over 800 staff members protested proposed changes to their pensions.

So why are staff taking to the picket lines again, and what can students expect from these strikes?

Why are staff striking?

Since industrial action was called off in March 2018, both UCU and Universities UK (UUK), the advocacy group for higher education employers including the University, agreed to establish an independent panel which would determine a way forward for staff pensions, with existing arrangements maintained until at least April 2019.

Since April, however, annual employee contributions have increased to 9.6%. Strikers are demanding a return to the 8% contribution level maintained before April 2019.

Strikers will also be protesting a deterioration of living and working conditions. According to analysis by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, academic staff at UK higher education institutions have seen a real-terms salary depression of 17% since 2009 compared to RPI inflation.

UCU will also be protesting casualisation and work-related stress among university employees.

What is the University’s position on the strikes?

The University, which employs nearly 8,000 academic staff, had pledged to increase its share of future pension contribution increases in March 2018. Currently the University contributes 21.1% to its employees’ pensions, up from 18% in March 2019, with further increases planned from April 2020 onwards.

The University has stated that it “respects the right of UCU members to take industrial action, and recognises that those who strike will not take a decision to do so lightly.”

It added that it was “committed to working with our unions at Cambridge to stand up for staff pensions and improve remuneration and working practices.”

Supporters of the strike will likely be critical of the University’s perceived failure to address work-related grievances among its staff. Jenny Marchant, Cambridge UCU Branch President, told Varsity that the University’s contribution to solving employee issues has been “inadequate” despite the University’s commitments. “We are quite disappointed by the lack of seriousness to address the gender pay gap especially, which stands at just under 20%,″ she said. A Varsity analysis earlier this year calculated Cambridge’s median gender pay gap for staff at 13.7%, and its mean gender pay gap at 18%. 

Fergus Lamb, a student member of Cambridge Defend Education, said that he hopes the strikes will “build a conversation out from the university to the colleges”, including on the provision of the Living Wage for college staff.

How will students be affected?

According to Marchant, around 1,700 members of academic staff are members of UCU, constituting around 21% of academic staff at the University.

Picket lines will be established at the Old Schools, Sidgwick Site, Downing Site, the New Museums Site and the Faculty of Education, with smaller and less regular demonstrations taking place at West Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Demonstrations will take place between 8am and 12pm on each day of strike action. A rally will then take place outside Great St. Mary’s Church after midday.

In an email addressing students on the 4th November, Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Graham Virgo said, “the University will make all reasonable efforts to ensure your studies are not adversely affected.” College teaching, including college-based supervising will not be affected by the strikes, as the action is against the University, not its individual constituent colleges.

Virgo further told students that “all parts of the University will remain open as usual throughout any period of industrial action” including “libraries and other support services”. He stressed that “lectures, seminars, laboratory work, supervisions and PhD vivas will take place as normal” unless otherwise notified by faculties.

Strikes are likely to hit the humanities departments the most, with the sciences seeing less disruption. While Cambridge UCU was unable to provide membership data by faculty, Marchant confirmed that staff in the humanities were typically more unionised than their colleagues in the sciences.

Following 8 days of strikes, UCU members will commence ‘action short of a strike’ when they return to work, meaning that staff will work strictly to contract, and will not cover for absent colleagues or reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

What are the options for students?

Students are entitled to cross picket lines and are not obliged to miss scheduled supervisions or lectures as a consequences of the strikes.

However various organisations – including CUSU, the GU and student activist groups such as Cambridge Defend Education – will be encouraging students to respect picket lines.

Supporters of the strike emphasise the common interest of staff and students. Fergus Lamb, of Cambridge Defend Education, told Varsity that “staff and student interests are not opposed” in the forthcoming action, advocating that students stand in solidarity with striking staff. “You’re not getting a good education when your teachers are underpaid and overworked.”

When asked about the potential disruption caused by the strikes for finalists in particular, Jenny Marchant told Varsity that “all we can do is emphasise that we’ve been pushed. Striking is a last resort action. We’ve tried negotiation - the reality is that we don’t have a lot of power and the power we do have is to withdraw our labour.”

CUSU Council voted overwhelmingly to support strike action last month, however the union has come under criticism by some for not adequately informing students about the impact of the strike, including over the potential impact for students intending on accessing the University Counselling Service and Disability Resources Centre.

College authorities have advised students to withdraw books from the University Library and Faculty libraries on non-strike days.

[Monday 25th November, 10:23: this article was amended to clarify that UCU represents academic-related staff including graduate students, not just 'academic staff' as previously reported.]