Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

University Workers Are Ready to Fight Like Never Before

University bosses have spent the last decade attacking pay and pensions and stripping bare the conditions that once formed the basis of a career in higher education. Now, members of UCU are rising to take back what is theirs.

Pay for academic staff has fallen 20% in real terms over the last twelve years, while on average vice-chancellors enjoy £269,000 salaries, rising to £500,000 at some institutions. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Next week, UCU members will deliver the biggest ever strike action in further education, with staff at dozens of colleges set to walk out. College teachers were insulted with a 2.5% pay ‘offer’, in a context of their wages already having fallen behind inflation by 35% since the financial crisis. We aren’t having it anymore.

University staff have had enough, too. Enough of the deep pay cuts, the relentless attacks on pensions, and the endemic precarious employment practices that have defined the past decade in higher education. Enough of our demands for the bare minimum being ignored by millionaire university bosses. That’s why we are in the midst of an unprecedented national university strike ballot.

In the lead up to the opening of our ballot of 150 universities across the UK, and since, it has become clear that something very special is happening in our union. In fact, it feels like a historic shift. As workers across the movement draw strength from one another’s fights, UCU members are rising like never before to take back what is theirs.

The energy behind and breadth of support for our national higher education strike ballot—which opened earlier in September—is testament to that. We are seeing longstanding discontent channeled into preparation for collective action on a historic scale. Every day brings a deluge of members voting YES: our social media feeds are a wall of pictures of ballots being posted. Members are also texting us in their thousands to say they have voted for action or are about to. Branches are reporting that they are approaching the 50% threshold just ten days in. And 1,800 new members have joined UCU since we launched our campaign. We have never seen anything like this before.

Over the past decade and more, university bosses have attacked pensions and pay and stripped bare the decent terms and conditions that formed the basis of a career in a university. It is in this context, where 90,000 university workers are employed on insecure contracts, tens of thousands are breaking under shocking workloads, and thousands struggle through a cost of living crisis, that the response of UCU members in our higher education ballot is all the more remarkable.

University bosses have refused to budge to consider UCU’s demands. With RPI inflation set to exceed 22%, their pay ‘offer’ still stands at 3%. A needless 35% cut to the guaranteed retirement income of staff is yet to be revoked and benefits restored.

The intransigence of university bosses is all the more contemptible given they are not short of cash, individually or institutionally. UK universities generated a record sector-wide income of over £41 billion last year, and are planning to splash £4.6 billion on white-elephant buildings and gratuitous vanity projects.

Between them, vice chancellors take home £44 million in annual remuneration, with individual pay packets as high as £519,000. With staff at the start of their careers taking home £37,000 a year, and often less, it’s hard to avoid the sense that these bosses are quite consciously taking the proverbial.

When our members deliver a massive YES vote and smash the anti-union turnout threshold, we will have a mandate for industrial action at every university across the UK. All our higher education members will be out at once for the first time, with the potential to bring every single campus to a standstill, giving us unprecedented leverage in negotiations with employers.

Our members understand this perfectly, and thanks to the most innovative communication and organising campaign our union has ever run, we are confident that we will deliver an unprecedented strike ballot turnout and YES vote.

Raj Jethwa, the bosses’ representative who negotiates on their behalf over pay and working conditions, has said our national ballot is ‘not unwelcome’ because ‘we will know where we stand as a sector’.

Just two weeks into this ballot, it’s clear he isn’t going to like the answer.