By Naomi Clarke & Jack Taylor
Durham University is set to face eight days of strikes at the end of November, as the University and College Union (UCU) announce planned action.
UCU members are set to strike from Monday 25th November until Wednesday 4th December. This comes after two national legal disputes, one over pensions and the other over pay and working conditions.
In a statement to Palatinate, the Durham University UCU said: “We, UCU members at Durham, would rather not strike but there seems to be no alternative.”
60 universities across the UK will be hit with this strike action unless universities respond positively and quickly.’
Analysis showed a typical union member will pay around £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement.
Durham University said in a statement sent to all students that “pay and pensions are subject to national negotiations, and, as one of a large number of employers, we have limited influence over the outcome, especially when many other higher education institutions are experiencing significant financial challenges.”
On their decision to strike, Durham UCU stated: “Universities UK (UUK) and UCEA (the group that represents Vice-Chancellors) need to take the issues of equalities, casualisation, pay and pensions seriously, and listen to University staff. We still have time to avert the strike if UUK and UCEA come back to the table with sensible offers.”
The dispute centres on changes to the ‘Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS)’ which, since 2011, have sparked action after analysis showed a typical union member will pay around £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement.
The USU’s action has already initiated with ‘action short of a strike’ taking place outside these strike dates which included: working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.
“Students and staff alike are subject to unfair treatment by the university, and we should work together to protect our interests.Durham Students’ Union President, Kate McIntosh
Durham UCU acknowledged in their statement to Palatinate: “This will undoubtedly affect the workings of the University, but we remain hopeful that the strength of feeling that we have shown in our ballot results will mean that a resolution to our disputes will be found.”
79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot over changes to pensions, whilst in the ballot on pay, equality, casualisation, and workloads, 74% of members polled backed strike action.
Legally, while a 50% turnout locally is the minimum threshold for strike action to take place, Durham’s turnout stood at 53.6% and 53.9% for strike action over pensions, and pay and working conditions, respectively.
UCU strike action has been supported by the National Union of Students (NUS), and in response, the Durham UCU stated: “We are heartened that NUS stands shoulder to shoulder with UCU on the current HE Higher Education] disputes , and look forward to meeting representatives from Durham Students Union next week.
Following this discussion, the Durham Students’ Union President, Kate McIntosh, told Palatinate: “Students and staff alike are subject to unfair treatment by the university, and we should work together to protect our interests.
“I am absolutely clear that staff pay and treatment has a direct relationship with the quality of the education we receive. The working conditions of university staff are our learning conditions.”
McIntosh affirmed the intentions of the UCU members: “Staff do not strike because they want to disadvantage students – rather, they want the University to improve their pay, pensions and working conditions to the benefit of us all.”
Durham UCU urged students to ask the Vice-Chancellor what he can do to resolve the issue
Durham Students’ Union confirmed that their officers, Kate, Sam and David, “with the support of the whole Student Officer team” are “working very closely with the Durham branch of UCU to mitigate the negative impact of strike action on students.”
The ramifications of lecture strikes are always hotly contested as students typically bear the brunt. In February 2018, industrial action was taken by UCU against 64 universities, represented by Universities UK (UUK).
The strikes took place over fourteen strike days, the longest-ever strike in UK higher-education history.
Durham UCU acknowledged the hardship this can bring upon students, stating: “We know that many students at Durham have strong feelings about the pending strike, and we urge them to support staff by asking the Vice-Chancellor to do what he can to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible.”
Durham SU “are working hard to ensure that clear, accessible guidance is issued”
Kate McIntosh also commented on the welfare of students, noting “strike action can cause anxiety, frustration and distress”, but affirmed that the Durham Students’ Union “are working hard to ensure that clear, accessible guidance is issued to students as soon as possible.”
Durham SU has an advice service which is open to all students and McIntosh is “working on equipping other student leaders with the information they need to support and signpost others effectively.”
In a statement sent to all students last week, the University stated: “We understand the outcome of the 2019 pay negotiations and the proposed changes to USS are important issues that concern many of our staff.
“We also know the decision to vote in favour of industrial action has not been taken lightly by many of our staff, and we respect their right to take part in industrial action. However, we are disappointed by the outcome from the UCU ballot given the potential impact on you, our students.
“Pay and pensions are subject to national negotiations, and, as one of a large number of employers, we have limited influence over the outcome, especially when many other higher education institutions are experiencing significant financial challenges.
“We ask that you act on the assumption that classes will be held as scheduled and that assessments can be submitted as usual.
“If this is not possible, then we will do our best to rapidly communicate this to you and find alternative means of ensuring that all learning outcomes are met.”
Illustration by Katie Butler