Largest UK-wide university strike in five years sees 70,000 staff walk out
Updated 02:13, 12-Feb-2023
Jian Feng & Thomas Wintle

Over 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the UK have gone on strike this week, in what is part of 18 days of planned industrial action related to disputes on pay, conditions and pensions.

In the UK's first nationwide university strike in five years, academics and support staff canceled lectures demanding a meaningful wage increase amid skyrocketing inflation, as well as pledges over insecure working conditions.

University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 120,000 academic staff, has added it will seek to renew its mandate for industrial action beyond February and March unless the disputes are settled.

That could include a boycott on marking students work from April.


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This week the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which represents university employers, attempted to quell the industrial action by offering staff the equivalent of a 5 percent wage increase.

However, 80 percent of union members rejected the offer, with representatives pointing out the figure would do little to offset the dramatically increased cost of living in the UK, with inflation still above 9 percent. 

Over 90,000 university staff currently work on insecure contracts. /CFP
Over 90,000 university staff currently work on insecure contracts. /CFP

Over 90,000 university staff currently work on insecure contracts. /CFP

"It is no surprise that university staff have overwhelmingly rejected a low-ball 5 percent offer from employers. This is a huge real-terms pay cut that would leave our members worse off," said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

UCU has also accused university employers of failing to address insecure employment practices, workloads and cuts to pension contributions. Over 90,000 university staff currently work on fixed term contracts, while staff are estimated to work an average of two extra days unpaid per week.

Cuts made last year would also see their average union member lose around 35 percent of their guaranteed future retirement income.

"We are striking for 48 hours this week and will take escalating action until we get a fair deal," said Grady.


On the picket line

In northern England, many students from Leeds University showed up to the picket line outside college campus to show their support for their striking teachers and support staff.

"Our employers are threatening to take away our pay. If we don't reschedule our teaching they will take away our pay even if we are working," Chloe Wallace, the president of the UCU Leeds, said.

She stressed that while Leeds was just one university among many, it could help drive the negotiations to a satisfactory settlement. 

"Leeds University is big and has a strong voice. They can influence things nationally, and they should drive things forward rather than keep the workers quiet. There is a national body negotiating, but all universities can influence this body," she added.


Renewed talks and student woes

UCU, alongside the UK's four other higher education unions, EIS, GMB, UNISON and Unite, will return to the negotiating table on Monday. However, the strike action will continue. 

"The union has been clear, we need an offer that addresses the key issues affecting our members - specifically on casualization and workloads. We haven't had that yet," said the head of the UCU on the new talks.

New talks are set to take place on Monday February 13. /CFP
New talks are set to take place on Monday February 13. /CFP

New talks are set to take place on Monday February 13. /CFP

"The sector has more than enough money to pay and treat people fairly, and employers have the power to do so."

The cancellation of classes has undoubtedly affected UK students, who pay around four times more for fees than many of their European counterparts. That price can go up by more than 40 percent for students from outside of the UK. 

"I have had eight academic writing sessions canceled," says Zexi Yu, an international student from China.

"As a postgraduate student, it certainly has impacted a lot on my dissertation progress," she adds.

But she, like many other students, remains sympathetic to her teachers' demands.

"I understand my teachers want their money back," says Zexi Yu. "I am also curious to know where the money was spent since we paid so much for university, and our teachers are earning so little."

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