Over 2.5 million students could face a halt in learning as tens of thousands of university staff begin industrial action on Thursday in what has been billed as the biggest strike in the history of UK higher education.
More than 70,000 staff, including lecturers, librarians and researchers, are due to take part in the first of three days of strike action over pay, working conditions and pensions, with pickets expected at 150 universities.
The University and College Union (UCU) says the strike, which will also take place on Friday and Wednesday next week, will bring the sector to a standstill.
University administrators, cleaners, security and catering staff who are members of Unison are also taking industrial action over pay at 19 universities.
“Staff are burnt out but they are fighting back and they will bring the whole sector to a standstill,” said the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, who warned of “even bigger action” in the new year unless there was an improved offer from employers.
“Vice-chancellors only have themselves to blame. Their woeful leadership has led to the biggest vote for strike action ever in our sector. Students are standing with staff because they know this can’t go on,” she said.
UCU’s demands include a pay rise in recognition of the cost of living crisis, after this year’s 3% increase, and an end to insecure contracts. On pensions, UCU wants employers to reverse cuts imposed this year that it claims will lead to the average member losing about 35% of their future retirement income.
Robert Halfon, the minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, said it was “hugely disappointing” that students who had already suffered during the pandemic would face further disruption to their learning due to industrial action.
“I urge all sides to work together so that students do not suffer with further learning loss, and I encourage any student worried about the impact of strikes on their education to raise this with their university,” he said.
The National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, Chloe Field, said students supported their lecturers. “We have always been clear that staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and for more than a decade both have come under attack from a sector that puts profits above education.”
Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association, said: “Union leaders must provide their members with a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable because strike action does not create new money for the sector.”
Meanwhile, Universities UK, which represents employers under the University Superannuation Scheme pension fund, said it remained one of the most attractive private pension schemes in the country.
Prof Steve West, the UUK president and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “Universities are well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and we are all working hard to put in place a series of measures to ensure this.”
The UCU campaign follows a series of strikes that were confined to smaller groups of universities. It is the latest in a wave of escalating industrial action taking place across the UK this winter, including action by tens of thousands of teachers in Scotland who are also due to strike on Thursday, with more dates planned for next year.
Industrial action by members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) is expected to close most schools in Scotland after the union’s demand for a 10% pay increase for members was not met.