University staff union backs away from UK-wide strikes as support wanes

<span>Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

The University and College Union has backed away from UK-wide strikes scheduled for next week, after two-thirds of campus branches declined to take part.

Lecturers, librarians and technicians at just 42 universities will walk out for five days from Monday, out of the 140 expected to take part when the UCU announced the industrial action earlier this month. A further 10 universities will hold strike action on at least one day next week.

Individual branches were asked if they wanted to take part in the strike action to be held from 25-29 September, which would have coincided with freshers’ week at many universities. However, 89 branches told the union this week they did not.

Two weeks ago the union ended the marking and assessment boycott that had been in place since April, and which had meant that some students were unable to graduate or receive final grades in the summer. Staff taking part had their pay docked.

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said: “We have seen many employers do the right thing and agree to stop punitive pay deductions and some have also agreed to return what has been taken.

“We are now urging other vice-chancellors to follow their lead and are calling off strike action at dozens of universities. This will also allow our members to concentrate on winning the reballot and getting the pay and conditions they deserve.

“Renewing our mandate and keeping the pressure on is the way we will win this dispute, but the strike action due to go ahead next week stands as a reminder to all employers that if you behave egregiously, you will face further disruption.”

The union’s tactics have been the subject of considerable debate within the UCU in recent weeks, with some members angry that their sacrifice in upholding the marking boycott may have been fruitless. Employers at many universities withheld or deducted 50% to 100% of pay while the boycott continued, with some staff losing more than £10,000.

Members’ waning appetite for further strikes may also imperil the UCU’s latest ballot on industrial action that opened this week, weakening its efforts to secure improved pay and working conditions. Next week’s strikes are the last that can take place under the union’s current mandate before it expires.

King’s College London’s UCU branch is among those that opted out of next week’s strikes, after the branch agreed a deal with the university’s management that includes an £800 pay increase and improved maternity and paternity leave provisions.

A KCL spokesperson said the university had agreed “a wide range of benefits for all staff to build our thriving staff community at King’s, including increases to the London weighting allowance, childcare support and paid parental leave”.

Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said he welcomed the majority of institutions calling off strikes.

“For the sake of students and staff alike, it is now vital to work together to bring to an end the sector’s recent cycle of industrial disputes,” Jethwa said.