Toby Donegan-Cross, Jack Taylor & Tom Mitchell
The University and College Union (UCU) announced on Monday that its members at 74 universities will strike for the second time this academic year.
The industrial action will begin on February 20th and will escalate each week, culminating in a week-long walkout from Monday March 9th.
Durham University has already faced action this academic year, with UCU members taking part in industrial action from November 25th until December 4th.
Disputes centre around two issues, the first being the impact of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and its rising cost to members. Changes to the scheme since 2011 have sparked action after independent analysis showed that a typical union member will pay around £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement.
The UCU is also striking over universities’ failure to make “significant improvements” on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.
For students at Durham since 2017 or before, this will be the third time that their studies have been affected by strikes. This round of walkouts comes less than two months after the conclusion of the previous industrial action.
The 2018 and 2019 strikes affected 61 and 60 universities respectively. This makes the upcoming strikes, affecting 74 universities across 14 days, more nationally significant.
Complaints about perceived slashes to staff pensions are now combined with concerns such as the ‘casualisation’ of work, and BAME and gender inequality.
Palatinate reported last year that Durham is far below the Russell Group average for employing BAME staff, at just 7% compared to an average of 13.7% across other universities for the 2017/18 academic year.
These employment statistics are despite the fact that 23% of all job applications to Durham came from BAME candidates in the final quarter of 2018.
During the 2019 strikes, some departments held ‘teachouts’ at Durham Miners Hall, for example, the English Department held creative writing workshops and film screenings.
Last year’s strike culminated in a protest in the Palatine Centre, which holds the Durham Law School, student services as well as the University’s headquarters.
Durham is far below the Russell Group average for employing BAME staff
One third year student commented:”I’m actually really annoyed about this, I’m missing all my contact hours as my tutors are all members for an entire month before my coursework, dissertation and finals.
“This is the third strike I’ve been impacted by since starting university and I can’t believe there’s not been a resolution that’s been reached. This isn’t sustainable.”
An assistant professor at Durham told Palatinate: “The decision to take a further 14 days strike action has not been taken lightly. We do not wish to cancel classes and delay marking but we have no other choice.
“The offer from employers on the Four Fights (against casualization, heavy workloads, fair pay and against the gender and race pay gap) was inadequate.
“To be told by Vice Chancellors in the top 1% of earners who came from a generation who went to university for free that so little can be done to improve our peers’ contracts is offensive.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: “If universities want to avoid further disruption they need to deal with rising pension costs, and address the problems over pay and conditions.”
“I can’t believe there’s not been a resolution that’s been reached. This isn’t sustainable.”Durham third year student
The UCU also warned it would ballot members again after this wave of strikes if the disputes could not be resolved, to ensure branches could take action until the end of the academic year. Strike mandates are only legally valid for six months, so branches who walked out in November would need to secure a fresh mandate to be able to continue to take action after April.
Nationwide, it is estimated that more than a million students will be impacted by this strike action. Some universities, such as Sussex, have launched schemes to compensate students for missed contact hours, inviting them to apply for cash payouts.
After the industrial action in 2017, over 5,000 Durham students unsuccessfully petitioned the University for compensation. The then Conservative Education Minister Sam Gyimah said: “I expect all universities affected to make clear that any money not paid to lecturers – as a consequence of strike action – will go towards student benefit including compensation.”
Durham University did not compensate students, instead donating money to the Student Hardship Fund.
“We regret the impact on our students.”Alan Houston (Vice Provost Education)
In response to Palatinate asking if Durham students would receive compensation this time round, Alan Houston (Vice Provost Education) said: “At this point in time, we do not know the precise impact of strike action on individual students. We are focusing our efforts on putting in place measures to ensure that students can meet the learning outcomes of the programmes on which they are registered.
“It is disappointing that the decision in favour of further strike action was taken when national talks on the future of the USS pension scheme are still ongoing and when intensive national discussions to try to resolve the current pay dispute has resulted in proposals addressing casual employment, workload, gender pay gaps and ethnicity pay.
“While we respect the right of our staff to take strike action, we regret the impact on our students and their education and we are working hard to mitigate this impact. We also continue to urge both sides in the dispute to remain open to negotiation and compromise in order to prevent further disruption.”
Illustration: Katie Butler