Employees at universities across the UK, who are members of trade unions Unite, the University and College Union (UCU), Unison, and the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS), have either commenced or confirmed strike action this week, in a dispute over raises that the unions stated represent real terms pay cuts.
At the University of Leeds, for example, more than 200 members of staff commenced strike action on 8 February, and are slated to continue until 23 February. This includes cleaners, janitors, estates staff and technicians. Employees at Royal Holloway, University of London, agreed to strike action from 14 to 23 February.
Trade union Unison confirmed that strikes would also be taking place at Edinburgh, Brighton, Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester universities.
The University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) implemented a pay deal that it stated offered staff a raise of between 8% and 5%, with the aim of prioritising the disproportionate effect of high inflation on those in lower pay bands.
Professor George Boyne, chair of UCEA, said: “Following detailed conversations, consultations and considered negotiations we have made a full and final pay offer that will be financially challenging for the majority of our [higher education] institutions. But employers did permit us to accelerate this process and push the pay packet to the sector’s limits, and that is what we have done.”
Raj Jethwa, chief executive of UCEA, added: “This is the highest [higher education] pay offer made in nearly 20 years, with many employers committed to implementing a proportion of this award six months early as a direct response to current cost of living concerns.
“UCU asked its members to reject our offer, but the union knows that many [higher education institutions’] finances are severely stretched in the face of falling real income and rising costs. It is hard to reach a settlement without a degree of realism. Our offer is a genuine attempt by employers to address cost of living pressures.”
Nevertheless, the unions stated that in the face of rising inflation, this amounted to a real terms pay cut. UCU added that over the past decade, staff pay has fallen 25% behind inflation. The majority (80.4%) of UCU members voted to reject the UCEA pay deal in a ballot that canvased more than 30,000 individuals.
Although strike action has been slated to continue through February and March, UCEA confirmed with Benefits Expert that it would be meeting with the trade unions and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) next week.
A spokesperson for the University of Leeds told Benefits Expert that, while the institution itself was unable to influence nationally negotiated pay deals, it had implemented further, targeted support for those in lower pay bands – namely a December payment of up to £650 for approximately 4,000 members of staff, following a similar payment in July 2022.
The spokesperson added: “We recognise these are difficult times for our staff, and have responded accordingly with targeted support. The university is taking significant steps to improve conditions locally and to build a more equitable community by reducing the number of short-term contracts, boosting job security, reducing pay gaps and improving opportunities for staff.”
A spokesperson for Royal Holloway, University of London, added: “We understand the cost-of-living pressures facing our colleagues and, alongside other higher education institutions, we are working with UCEA to identify how these concerns could be addressed whilst acknowledging that the income from student fees has not increased since 2017 and the government plans for fees to remain frozen until 2025.
“Every effort is being made to minimise the impact of the action on our students and to ensure that they receive the support they need to succeed in their studies.”