UK university staff to ballot in October over pay and pensions

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Embargoed until 00:01hrs Wednesday 22 September

  • University employers are cutting USS members’ guaranteed annual pension by 35%
  • University staff also in dispute over spiralling workloads, below inflation pay offers and insecure contracts
  • UCU to ballot from Monday 18 October unless employers meet its demands
  • Ballot to close in first week of November for action before end of the year
  • National Union of Students (NUS) come out to back staff action

The University and College Union (UCU) has today (Wednesday) confirmed that strike ballots will open at UK universities on Monday 18 October in rows over USS pensions and pay, unsafe workloads, casualisation and equality failings.

The union’s higher education committee (HEC) met Monday (20 September) and confirmed the timetable for a ballot of 152 institutions in total, six will be balloted on USS only, 83 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions, with another 63 institutions in the UK facing two ballots over both USS and pay and working conditions [Note 1].

UCU says that it now expects employers to return to negotiations with better offers in both disputes or face action that will disrupt the end of term and continue into the next one.

National Union of Students (NUS) offered its support for staff planning to take action, saying ‘students will hold employers responsible’ if vice chancellors and employers do not come to ‘a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff.’

The ballots will run from Monday 18 October to Thursday 4 November unless employers resolve the dispute beforehand. UCU’s HEC will meet to consider the results of the ballot on 8 November with action expected to take place before the end of the year.

The ballot over pensions comes after employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff last month. The plans, based on a flawed valuation of the USS scheme conducted at the beginning of the pandemic as markets were crashing, represent an annual guaranteed pension cut of 35% for a typical member [Note 2].

These cuts come after series of changes between 2011 and 2019 have been shown to already leave a typical member around £240,000 worse off. 

UCU produced alternative proposals for reform of USS [Note 3], which were discussed at the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) with employers, represented by UUK. However, employers refused to match the level of covenant support for UCU’s proposals which they were willing to deliver for their own. Employers also refused a range of delay options to allow more time to negotiate.

The second ballot is over issues related to declining staff pay, the use of casualised contacts, unsafe workloads and equality failings.

Research by UCU found 42% of teaching staff employed on zero hours contracts, with 49% on insecure fixed-term contacts.

Pay for university staff fell by around 20% between 2009 and 2019. Since then employers have made a series of below inflation offers, this despite university income from tuition fees growing by a third in the last five years alone. The latest pay offer from University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) was just 1.5%.

The gender pay gap sits at 15.5% and the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that, of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were Black.

UCU is demanding a £2.5k pay increase; an end to race and gender pay injustice; a framework eliminate the use of precarious contracts, such as zero-hours employment; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads. 

The staff groups being balloted in both sets of action by UCU include academic and academic-related staff.

University staff previously took the largest strike action UK higher education has ever seen in 2020 over the same issues. The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency data, from 2019/20, shows total income across the sector was £41.9bn with reserves of £46.8bn.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.

‘The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.

‘Our members across the UK know that working in a university does not have to be like this and are clear that they are ready to take action to stand up for their dignity, defend pensions and win long overdue improvements to their pay and working conditions. There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation which is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.’

NUS national president Larissa Kennedy said: As students, we regularly witness how staff and student’s conditions are intertwined. University management forcing staff onto casualised contracts, cutting their pay, and now trying to cut thousands of pounds from their pensions cannot be divorced from the fact that one in 10 students has needed to access a foodbank to survive the pandemic - these aren’t the actions of a university leadership or an education system that have the interests of staff or students at heart.

‘Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system. We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff and communities they exist to serve. Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff. If they don’t, students will hold employers responsible.’


[Note 1]

USS only

  1. Cranfield University
  1. Imperial College London
  1. Reading, University of
  1. Ruskin College
  1. The Institute of Development Studies
  1. University of Highlands Institute (Scottish Association for Marine Science)

Pay, casualisation, workload and equalities

  1. Abertay University
  1. Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)
  1. Arts University Bournemouth (AUB)
  1. Bath Spa University
  1. Bedfordshire, University of
  1. Bishop Grosseteste University
  1. Bolton, University of
  1. Bournemouth University
  1. Brighton, University of
  1. Buckinghamshire New University
  1. Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU)
  1. Cardiff Metropolitan University
  1. Central Lancashire, University of (UCLan)
  1. Chester, University of
  1. Chichester, University of
  1. Coventry University
  1. Cumbria, University of
  1. De Montfort University (DMU)
  1. Derby, University of
  1. East London, University of (UEL)
  1. Edge Hill University
  1. Edinburgh Napier University
  1. Falmouth University
  1. Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU)
  1. Glasgow School of Art
  1. Gloucestershire, University of
  1. Greenwich, University of
  1. Harper Adams University
  1. Hertfordshire, University of
  1. Huddersfield, University of
  1. Kingston University
  1. Leeds Arts University
  1. Leeds Beckett University
  1. Leeds Trinity University
  1. Lincoln, University of
  1. Liverpool Hope University
  1. Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA)
  1. Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)
  1. London Metropolitan University
  1. London South Bank University (LSBU)
  1. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU)
  1. Middlesex University
  1. Newman University College
  1. Northampton, The University of
  1. Northumbria University
  1. Norwich University of the Arts (NUA)
  1. Nottingham Trent University (NTU)
  1. Oxford Brookes University
  1. Plymouth Marjon University
  1. Plymouth, University of
  1. Portsmouth, University of
  1. Queen Margaret University
  1. Robert Gordon University
  1. Roehampton University
  2. Rose Bruford College
  1. Royal Academy of Music (RAM)
  1. Royal Agricultural University
  1. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD)
  1. Royal College of Art (RCA)
  1. Royal College of Music (RCM)
  1. Royal Northern College of Music
  1. Sheffield Hallam University
  1. Solent University
  1. South Wales, University of
  1. St Mary's University College
  1. St Mary's University, Twickenham
  1. Staffordshire University
  1. Stranmillis University College
  1. Sunderland, University of
  1. Teesside University
  1. Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
  1. University of the Arts London (UAL)
  1. University College Birmingham
  1. University for the Creative Arts (UCA)
  1. West London, University of (UWL)
  1. West of England, University of the (UWE)
  1. West of Scotland, University of the
  1. Westminster, University of
  1. Winchester, University of
  1. Wolverhampton, University of
  1. Worcester, University of
  1. Wrexham Glyndŵr University
  1. York St John University

Both ballots

  1. Aberdeen, The University of
  1. Aberystwyth University
  1. Aston University
  1. Bangor University
  1. Bath, University of
  1. Birkbeck College, University of London
  1. Birmingham, University of
  1. Bradford, University of
  1. Bristol, University of
  1. Brunel University
  1. Cambridge, University of
  1. Cardiff University
  1. City, University of London
  1. Courtauld Institute of Art
  1. Dundee, University of
  1. Durham University
  1. East Anglia, University of (UEA)
  1. Edinburgh, University of
  1. Essex, University of
  1. Exeter, University of
  1. Glasgow, University of
  1. Goldsmiths, University of London
  1. Heriot-Watt University
  1. Hull, University of
  1. Keele University
  1. Kent, University of
  1. King's College London (KCL)
  1. Lancaster, University of
  1. Leeds, University of
  1. Leicester, University of
  1. Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
  1. Liverpool, University of
  1. London School of Economics (LSE)
  1. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
  1. Loughborough University
  1. Manchester, The University of
  1. New York University in London
  1. Newcastle University
  1. Nottingham, The University of
  1. Open University (OU)
  1. Oxford, University of
  1. Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
  1. Queen's University of Belfast (QUB)
  1. Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL)
  1. Royal Veterinary College, University of London (RVC)
  1. Salford, University of
  1. Senate House, University of London
  1. Sheffield, University of
  1. SOAS, University of London (The School of Oriental and African Studies)
  1. Southampton, University of
  1. St Andrews, University of
  1. St George's, University of London
  1. Stirling, University of
  1. Strathclyde, University of
  1. Suffolk, University of
  1. Surrey, University of
  1. Sussex, University of
  1. Swansea University
  1. Ulster University
  1. University College London (UCL)
  1. University of Wales Trinity Saint David
  1. Warwick, University of
  1. York, University of

[Note 2]

A USS member aged 37 earning £41,526 (the current starting salary for a lecturer in many institutions) will go on to build up an annual guaranteed pension of £12,170 if they continue to work full time in the sector until age 66. This compares with the £18,857 annual income which they would build up under the current arrangement. The same 35% cut would also apply to the guaranteed cash lump sum which the member would receive when they retire.

[Note 3]

UCU’s USS proposals:

  • Employers would pay 24.9% (3.8% more than they do currently).
  • USS members would pay 8.1% (1.5% less than they do currently).
  • Accrual will be reduced from 1/75 to 1/80.
  • The salary threshold up to which defined benefits are accrued will be lowered to £40,000.
  • All benefits would receive the same protection against inflation as they do currently, via a system of trigger contributions payable by employers if inflation exceeds 2.5%.
  • Members would be able to choose to pay even lower contributions (0% or 4%) while receiving the same level of contributions from their employer and continuing to build up a guaranteed pension, at a proportionately lower accrual rate.
  • Members who spend less than two years (but over three months) in USS would be entitled to the same benefits as everyone else.

[Note 4]

To arrange an interview with UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady tomorrow, please contact UCU Press Officer Nathan Gayle on the details below.


Media Contacts

Nathan Gayle m: 07970 145 368; e: