Academic Staff Moving Towards Strikes on 25th November

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The University of Leeds is one of sixty higher education institutions where members of the trade union UCU have voted in favour of taking industrial action.

UCU represents most academic staff, including lecturers and professions,managerial staff as well as some postgraduate staff. The union was balloting and campaigning for strike action over the course of October in response to two separate issues. 

Firstly, changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which has seen staff increase their contributions to their pensions compared to previous years, as well as over a lack of progress in making improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads )The “Four Fights” dispute). 

The strikes will go on for 8 working days between Monday the 25th November and Wednesday 4th December. During this period, some staff will not go into work resulting in delayed marking, cancelled lectures and possible disruption to January exams. 

A spokesperson from the University of Leeds said: 

‘The industrial action is part of a national dispute about pensions and pay and we don’t yet know how many staff members will take part. The University’s priority is to minimise any disruption it may cause to student’s education, and we will do everything we can to recover missed learning opportunities. We have created a special Q&A for students to help answer their questions- https://students.leeds.ac.uk/industrialaction.’

However, disruption will continue afterwards as action short of a strike wil take place from the 25th November to no later than the 29th of April. This means staff who choose to take part will only work to their contract. This means they might not cover for absent colleagues or carry out voluntary activities like sharing class materials due to strikes or rescheduled classes. 

In a statement, Leeds University Union’s Student Exec said:

‘As your elected officers, we are committed to representing the best interests of all students at the University of Leeds, and we have met separately with both Leeds University Management and University & College Union (UCU) to discuss the impacts of the proposed strike action and have urged both sides to do all that they can to mitigate these effectively and consistently across the University. 

We would also like to assure members that LUU outlets and services will continue to operate as normal throughout the proposed strike action and our Help and Support team will be on hand for any student who is worried about how this may impact them.

In Leeds, 78.12% of UCU members voted in favour of strike action over the pensions issue and 74.96% of UCU members voted in favour of the “Four Fights” dispute. Turnout in both ballots was just over 60%, well above the 50% threshold required for action to take place.

For action short of a strike, 83.36% and 85.43% of UCU members voted in favour of this on the “Four Fights” dispute and USS pensions dispute respectively. 

Other trade unions Unison and Unite who represent other groups of staff also balloted on striking in relation to the “Four Fights” dispute. While members of both these Unions voted in favour of strikes, turnout failed to reach the 50% threshold mandated by the 2017 Trade Union Act.

Cancelled lectures and seminars will negatively impact on student welfare. In the 2018 strikes, dissertation deadlines were extended in some schools and extensive numbers of mitigating circumstances granted to compensate for missed teaching. This time around, the timing of the strikes means students are likely to miss out on important classes ahead of exams after Christmas. 

In a further statement, LUU’s Student Exec said: 

‘We recognise that this is a complex conflict and that Leeds students are going to have a wide range of responses to this action, particularly around the negative impact it can have on your academic experience. Our priority will be to ensure that you have all the right information and are aware of how you can express yourselves on this issur and seek support from us (or your department). We will continue to work hard to engage with both the UCU and the University to ensure that you are kept informed as this situation develops.’

If the strikes take place, students paying £9250 a year will lose the equivalent of £506.85 in education given that 8 teaching days will be lost out of a total of 146 for the whole academic year. 

The University has advised students to

‘turn up for each of your scheduled activities unless you know for sure that it has been cancelled. The fact that a lecturer has told you they will be on strike does not mean tht their lecture or class will necessarily be cancelled. It is possible that it might be delivered by someone else.’ 

‘We are, of course, doing all we can to minimise any disruption. Your school will be the best source of information and will do what it can to keep you updated during the strike period. We encourage you to speak to the school’s student support/taught student office if you have any questions.’ 

Nationally, 79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot over changes to the pension scheme. The UCU and the pensions trust of the Universities United Kingdom (UUK) have been locked in a deadlock over increasing staff’s pension contributions since 2018. 

Staff last went on strike in February, March and April 2018 against the USS scheme which would have seen staff increase their contribution rates from 8% to 11.4% of their annual salary. 

A temporary agreement was forged between both parties whereby a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was set up to advise the UUK on how to cut its pensions deficit of £3.6 billion. These latest strikes are a result of the JEP’s report, published in September, which UCU argue is being ignored by the UUK. 

It advised provided several options for both parties to resolve the dispute, including one that members should only have to increase their contributions to 9.1%. However, this figure has risen to 9.6% and left employees £10,000 worse off over the course of their career according to the UCU.

It must be noted that the UUK did offer UCU a pension contribution of 9.1% but this was reportedly rejected by UCU before being put to members.

Pension contributions are not the only source of contention, 74% of UCU members polled nationally also backed strike action over the “Four Fights” dispute. 

According to UCU, over half of all academics are on temporary contracts, and pay has fallen by 17% in real terms since 2009. There is also frustration at Universities’ failures to bridge the gender and racial pay gaps as well as ever-increasing workloads. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady reacted to the results of the ballot saying:

‘The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions. 

Any general election candidate would be over the moon with a result along the lunes of what we achieved last week. Universities can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on these issues and we will be consulting branches whose desire to strike was frustrated by anti-union laws about reballoting.’

The University of Leeds is one of over 136 Universities who are part of UUK and as a result, negotiations take place at national level between UCU and UUK. This means that Leeds is not the only University who has a voice at the negotiating table with some Universities in UUK reportedly struggling to pay the current arrangement. 

It is uncertain as to how another round of staff strikes will play out and a deal might be reached before strike action takes place. However, it is certain that any form of strike action will cause disruption to students’ educational experience, though the scale of the disruption at this point is unclear.