Five out of 14 days of planned strike action has taken place so far this yearYinuo Meng

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents around 110,000 staff working at universities across the UK, is currently well under way in its third wave of strikes over the past three academic years. Varsity has spoken to members of Cambridge UCU to trace staff demands from 2018 up until now, as well as changes in the dispute nationally.

February – March 2018 strikes: The Pensions Dispute

Beginning in February 2018, the UCU undertook 14 days of escalating industrial action at 65 universities across the UK to challenge proposed plans by Universities UK (UUK) which would see ‘defined benefit’ pension schemes for university staff on incomes under £55,000 replaced by ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes.

This would have meant that instead of providing a guaranteed income upon retirement, the value of pensions would depend on returns from underlying investments. UCU cited analysis that defined contribution schemes could potentially leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

The UUK made a new proposal in March 2018, which included the introduction of a ‘Joint Expert Panel’ (JEP) to assess any future transition to ‘defined contribution’ pension funds. This was accepted by UCU members, with 64% of UCU members voting to suspend an intended second round of strikes.

Professor Clément Mouhout, a mathematician at King’s and then-member of Cambridge UCU’s industrial action committee, told Varsity that between the Lent 2018 and the Michaelmas 2019 strikes, the JEP examined the valuation of the pension scheme and how to resolve the conflict. He said that UCU was “sad to report however that the two reports produced by this panel have been ignored by the employers and the managers of the pension fund.”

What is the Joint Expert Panel?

The Joint Expert Panel (JEP) comprises six members, three appointed by UUK and three from UCU. The chairperson is independent: Joanne Segers OBE, who took up the role in May 2018.

While the JEP deliberated, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), one of the largest higher education pension schemes, announced that, as the legal deadline for addressing the pension fund’s deficit had passed, it would raise both staff and employer contributions to maintain the scheme’s benefits, in line with statutory procedure. The proposed raises would be introduced over a year; rising from the status quo staff contribution of 8% to 8.8% in April 2019 and 10.4% in October.

A review was released by the JEP in September 2018, criticising the mechanism of valuation recommending adjustment of the methodology and data used in the 2017 valuation of the USS scheme. UCU supported the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel, like UUK, whereas USS which wouldn’t accept the recommendations in full.

UCU in June 2019 warned USS institutions of industrial action later in 2019 if they did not rule out benefit cuts or contribution increases, and outlined a timetable for balloting on USS pensions for September 2019.

November 2019: Strikes for pay equality, and pensions again

November 2019 saw eight days of UCU industrial action.

The key difference between this round of strikes and those in 2018 was the inclusion of action against unfair pay and inequality in addition to pensions.

In April 2018, following a round of negotiations in which UCU demanded pay uplifts for employees, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) proposed a 1.7% pay increase, raising this offer to 2% in May. This figure was not consistent with the rate of inflation, translating as a real terms wage cut for employees.

Since then, several ballots on strike action over unfair pay and pay inequality have failed to surpass the 50% turnout required by the Trade Union Act 2016 for industrial action to occur.

These strikes were further prompted after the chair of the Joint Negotiating Committee backed new proposals which would have increased members’ personal contributions to their USS pensions.


Mountain View

UCU Cambridge say ‘We don’t want to get to the 14th day of strikes’

UCU had demanded a cap on staff contributions at 8% of lecturers’ salaries.

Another two ballots opened in September 2019; one demanding higher pay and equality, and the second rejecting an increase in pension contributions. In October, the results were announced, with national turnout reaching 53%. Cambridge saw a turnout of 57%, of which 80% voted in favour of strike action. 90% voted in favour of action short of strike, including a marking and assessment boycott.

Cambridge UCU announced last week that, following the November strikes, the HR Committee at the University have agreed to consider the transfer of hourly paid teachers to employment contracts, along with a review of around 700 fixed-term contracts in roles in roles of an ongoing nature, to identify who staff that could be transferred from fixed-term to open-ended roles.

Lorena Gazzotti, Cambridge UCU anti-casualisation officer, described this as “a huge win” in their campaign to support casualised staff at the University: “A year ago none of this would have been possible.”

February – March 2020: Largest education strikes in modern times

In the current wave of strikes, staff at 74 universities across the UK, nine more than in 2018, are undertaking 14 days of industrial action staggered across February and March. Although this marks the third large-scale round of industrial action at UK universities in the past three years, UCU have said that support from staff and students remains “solid”.

This time, UCU is focusing on the sustainability of the USS, on rising costs for staff members, and on failures to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.

The current industrial action aims to pressure employers to work with UCU in campaigning for the USS to accept the findings of the Joint Expert Panel. Member contributions to the scheme are set to rise even further to 11% in 2021 unless an alternative agreement can be reached in the 2020 valuation.

Susanne Hakenbeck, a Senior Lecturer in Historical Archaeology and member of Cambridge UCU, told Varsity: “Aside from more branches taking part this time, this new round of strikes is not fundamentally different from the strikes in Michaelmas 2019. The current mandate for industrial action is live from November to April (6 months). Unfortunately, negotiations did not lead to an offer that UCU could accept, so the union has decided to up the pressure with a new round of strike days.”

Cambridge UCU cites ‘hurdle of communication’

Cambridge UCU have said that they face challenges of communication with the University establishment which other regional branches of UCU do not.

In January, Cambridge UCU (CUCU) made three specific demands to the University. First, for the University to officially recognise their union, second, to give a public statement calling on UUK and the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) for a new pensions offer, and third, to hold an open meeting.

Recognising Cambridge UCU would mean that, as a union, it would have more input in the University’s decision making processes, and more direct involvement in negotiations.

Susanne Hakenbeck, a Senior Lecturer in Historical Archaeology and member of Cambridge UCU, told Varsity: “Since CUCU is not recognised by the University, we don’t have a regular flow of communication with the University management, as is the case at other universities where UCU is recognised.”

“This makes it difficult for us to make our voices heard. Thursday’s Open Meeting with the Vice Chancellor shows that management is much more receptive to listen to students’ concerns than to those of staff. We are very grateful to CUSU for inviting us along to this event.”

How has student support varied since 2018?

As with this round of strikes, and the enduring support of student campaigners, including Cambridge Defend Education and Cambridge Zero Carbon, the first wave saw support from some student groups and mounting pressure at the University level. There was a five-day occupation of Old Schools, with student occupiers leaving after Toope agreed to an open meeting, and that striking academics would not be expected to reschedule teaching time without pay.

In 2018, CUSU Council voted on whether to support a motion calling for reimbursement to students affected by missed contact hours. The issue split many supportive of the strike: some claimed that any calls for reimbursement reinforced the ‘marketisation’ of higher education while others, including several Cambridge UCU members, argued that calls for refunds would make the strike more disruptive, and therefore more effective. However, the motion was rejected.

Last week, a motion “to increase the effectiveness of strike action” was proposed by a current undergraduate SU presidential candidate, Henry Wright, which aimed to “get the University to listen in the only way they actually do which is to hurt them financially”, and that strike refunds were a policy of anti-marketisation “since it shows a huge negative of their approach to pricing of education as fees”.

He argued that the 2020 strikes was evidence that “the first round wasn’t effective enough in getting senior uni management to change their mind.”

It was rejected after opposition from attendees, including from Ben Margolis, also an undergraduate SU presidential candidate, who argued that fee refunds would feed “into the logic of marketisation”, and he pointed out that “fee refunds were not necessary in 2018 for the university and UUK to make significant concessions in negotiations”.

It is notable now that some JCRs have changed their tone since the first round of strikes in 2018, although they still maintain that they support staff in their decision to strike. For example, Christ’s JCR said it “believes that it is fundamentally the individual choice of students whether to, and how to, support staff. No student should feel at all uncomfortable if they decide to cross a picket line – you are fully entitled to cross the line and nobody should intimidate you as a result.”