The UCU is demanding a pay increase, an end to race and gender pay inequalities, ending of casualisation and workload reductionAlarichall / Wikimedia Commons

Last week (22/09), the University and College Union (UCU) confirmed the opening of strike ballots at UK universities, from Monday 18 October to Thursday 4 November. One to resolve issues of “pensions and pay, unsafe workloads, casualisation and equality failings”, otherwise referred to as the “four fights” issues, and the other pertaining to disputes over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension schemes.

The ‘Four Fights’

This follows the ratification of motions at the Higher Education Sector Congress by the UCU Higher Education Committee in June this year, which called for a strategy to defend the “four fights” issues and mobilise members.

Findings from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) in 2019 revealed that the pay of staff has been reduced by “around 17% in real-terms since 2009”.

Data from the Higher Education Staff Statistics (HESS) show that only 28% and less than1% of professors in the UK are women and Black respectively, with Times Higher Education (THE) revealing a gender pay gap of 15.1%, in April 2019.

A Cambridge UCU spokesperson told Varsity that the branch has also been focusing on campaigning for anti-casualisation, to obtain “fundamental worker’s rights for college undergraduate supervisors”, claiming that colleges contract around 5,000 supervisors annually, 90% of which are “individual contractors and not on payroll.”

Speaking to Varsity, Dr Lorena Gazzotti, Cambridge UCU Branch Secretary, commented: “The intransigence of the Colleges vis-à-vis the demands of undergraduate supervisors is simply disgraceful. It’s extraordinary that such a large proportion of the quality individual and small-group tuition, upon which the reputation of Cambridge is based, is being delivered by people who basically have no workers rights.”

The UCU is demanding “a £2.5k pay increase; an end to race and gender pay injustice; a framework [to] eliminate the use of precarious contracts, such as zero-hours employment; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads.”

Pension Reduction

Additionally, a ballot over pensions follows employer body Universities UK’s (UUK), a consortium of 140 institutions, decision to reduce employers’ original pension contribution.

The UCU has criticised this decision by stating that it was based on a “flawed valuation” of how the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the UK’s largest higher education pension fund, performed “at the beginning of the pandemic as markets were crashing”.

Based on USS’ 2018 valuation, contributions from employers were expected to increase by 2.6% while members would have contributed 1.4% more, from 21.1% and 9.6% to 23.7% and 11% respectively.

However, following USS’ 2020 valuation, the new contribution rates are 21.4% for employers and 9.8% for employees — translating to a 0.3% and 0.2% increase respectively, compared to the previous rates based on the 2018 valuation.

The USS has cited the “rising cost” of providing the scheme’s current benefits, based on the 2018 valuation, as being behind the new contribution rates. The body stated that without reform of the scheme, members would be required to pay 18.6% of their salary, and employers 37.6% as early as April 2022, up from 9.6% and 21.1% currently.

The UCU proposed that employers’ pay 3.8% more than they presently do (from 21.1% to 24.9%), while USS members pay 1.5% less than their current contributions (from 9.6% to 8.1%).

If the Cambridge branch votes in favour of industrial action, strikes could possibly take place before the end of Michaelmas, the same spokesperson told Varsity.

Previous UCU Strikes in Cambridge: Successes and Ongoing Efforts

Cambridge has seen three waves of UCU strikes in the last four years: over pensions in 2018, and over pensions and the ‘four fights’ — pay inequality, pay deflation, job insecurity, and rising workloads — in 2019 and 2020.

In February 2018, Cambridge was one of 65 universities across the UK where UCU members undertook 14 days of strikes to challenge proposed changes to pension schemes for staff earning under £55,000 a year.

This came after UUK’s plans to replace ‘defined benefit’ with ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes. These proposals were presented as a measure to tackle the £6.1 billion deficit of the USS at the time. The proposed ‘defined contribution’ scheme would have subjected the value of pensions to stock market fluctuations, rather than maintaining them as guaranteed income upon retirement, with the UCU claiming this would deprive the average lecturer of an extra £10,000 a year upon retiring.

In response to the strikes, UUK proposed the introduction of a ‘Joint Expert Panel’ (JEP) — a body comprising three members appointed by UUK, three members appointed by UCU, and an independent chairperson — to re-assess the proposals.

While the JEP deliberated, USS announced that, in accordance with statutory procedure, it would raise both staff and employer contributions to maintain benefits as the legal deadline for addressing its deficit had passed. The increases would be introduced over the course of a year and, according to data from the USS’ March 2017 actuarial valuation,see staff contributions rise from 8% to 8.8% in April 2019, 10.4% in October 2019, and 11.4% in April 2020.

In November 2018, USS agreed to a new valuation of the fund as it stood in March 2018. This valuation found that it had a deficit of £3.6 billion, and that employee contributions would need to rise from 8% of salaries to 11.0% by April 2020 in order for ‘defined benefit’ pensions to be maintained.

UCU maintained that employee contributions should not rise above 8% of salaries, rejecting a compromise put forward in August 2019 by UUK that would have capped employee contributions at 9.1% — conditional on UCU not holding strikes on pensions for two years.

The second wave of strikes, lasting eight days in November and December 2019 and involving over 40,000 staff at 60 universities, made demands concerning the “four fights” — pay inequality, pay deflation, job insecurity, and rising workloads —as well as pensions.

In 2019, UCU criticised UCEA’s offer of a 1.8% pay increase, which failed to match the retail price index (RPI) measure of inflation for that year, and found that the UCEA made “no meaningful offer on workload”, and “limited” offers on precarious contracts and gender and racial inequalities.

When UCU held two strike ballots in September 2019 - one rejecting pension contributions greater than 8% of salaries, the other demanding action on the “four fights” - turnout cleared 50% and 79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action.

In Cambridge there was a 57% turnout, with 80% supporting strike action and 90% favouring action short of strike, such as a marking and assessment boycott.

Following this round of strikes, the University of Cambridge HR Committee agreed to review around 700 fixed-term contracts to identify staff who could be transferred to open-ended roles, and to consider the transfer of hourly paid teachers to employment contracts.

At the national level, UCEA published a set of proposals in January 2020 pertaining to job insecurity, workloads, and gender and racial inequality, while refusing to make concessions on the pay rise.

In a briefing circulated to members, UCU took this as evidence that there is “little doubt that the union has made progress on the three non-pay issues [...] as a direct result of the successful strike action undertaken by UCU members.”

The latest round of strikes, which amounted to 14 days in February and March 2020, involved up to 50,000 staff at 74 universities.

In a February briefing for UCU members, UCU negotiators laid out the objectives of another strike for the “four fights” issues: ensuring UCEA’s proposals become “reality for staff on the ground”; obtaining stronger commitments on some issues, especially workload; compelling UCEA to increase pay by more than 1.8%.

The continued impasse over pensions — with UUK setting employee contributions at 9.6% of salaries, while UCU maintained that they should not surpass 8% — also prompted the strikes.

The strike days were staggered across a four-week period, with two strike days in the first week, three in the second, four in the third, and five in the fourth.

In Cambridge, the strikes culminated with Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope inviting Cambridge UCU to submit a formal claim for recognition, which would give it the right to be consulted during the University’s decision-making on issues such as staff pay and redundancies.

However, Cambridge UCU rejected the University’s recognition deal as it was limited to the representation of academic staff, and did not cover research and administrative personnel. Cambridge UCU continues to call for full recognition for all of its membership, launching its “Recognition Now” campaign in May 2021.

COVID-19: Exacerbating Fault-lines

With the onset of national lockdown at the end of March 2020, Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary, wrote in an online statement to members that the pandemic was “further exposing and exacerbating” the issues at the heart of the strikes.

In June 2020, UCU criticised the newly launched ‘Sustaining University Research Expertise (SURE)’ package that sought to provide financial support for research during the pandemic. The government promised to cover up to 80% of income losses due to reduced international student intake for the academic year 2020/21, and sought to provide “low-interest loans with long pay-back periods” in addition to a “small amount of government grants”.

The UCU claimed that the package “fail[ed] to put students and staff at the centre of its recovery plans” and makes clear that “universities who focus most on teaching will receive little of the new money”; meaning erosion of academic capacities and staff layoffs, in particular affecting BAME and contract staff.

In November 2020, over 1,127 academics and 92 PhD students and researchers [as of 27/09/21] signed an open letter addressed to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), following its decision to disallow further extensions of time or funding to PhD students not in their final year despite having their research disrupted.

The letter called for UKRI to “urgently rethink” its plans and to better make use of its £6 billion budget to fund students so as to better support the Higher Education sector and its members.

Speaking to Varsity, a Cambridge UCU spokesperson stated that the pandemic has “greatly increased the workload, and as a result the stress levels” of many of its members.

The shift to remote learning required university staff to “[go] beyond their call of duty to deliver safe teaching in constantly changing circumstances”.

Michael Abberton, Branch President, added that “despite the commitment of the [Vice-Chancellor] not to make any staff redundant due to COVID-19, we have seen many jobs at risk of redundancy across the University due to organisation restructuring”.

He continued that this potentially reveals “a worrying trend towards outsourcing” symptomatic of “a fundamental lack of respect for hard-working and dedicated staff — and no recognition of the effect on the wider community”.

Student Support for Strikes

Cambridge Student Union (CamSU) has in the past been an active supporter of UCU strikes, with some of CamSU’s paid staff members striking alongside lecturers.

During the 2020 Lent Term staff strikes, CamSU volunteers organised a student support programme for staff on picket lines, including delivering tea and coffee to strikers and attending daily rallies on King’s Parade.

CamSU also provided a list of student study spaces which avoided crossing picket lines, and creating a student mentoring and book-sharing scheme.

Varsity has approached CamSU for comment about the possibility of strikes in Michaelmas 2021.

Varsity contacted the University regarding the claims that the organisational restructuring may cause some jobs to be at risk of redundancy. In response, the University commented that “the proposed UCU industrial action is about pay and pensions. The University’s priority is our community. We are committed to working with our unions at Cambridge and doing everything in our power to support our staff and students at this time.”