Members vote to REJECT ‘Four Fights’ offer – Now #Fight4TheFuture

London College of Fashion

UCU members in Higher Education have voted overwhelmingly to reject the employers’ offer to settle the Four Fights dispute. 61.2% voted Reject, 38.8% to Accept on a 30% turnout.

This is an important result. UCU members have decided that the offer was not worth all the sacrifices that we made, including the 22 days of strike action. They are right — the offer gave no guarantees on casualisation or gender pay, speaking only of ‘expectations’ that employers would engage in, using existing consultation arrangements to ‘move in the right direction’. There was no commitment to ban zero hours contracts, despite such contracts being illegal in some countries. And there was no requirement to come to local agreements with unions or even to engage with them properly if there were not existing mechanisms to do so.

On race pay there was virtually nothing, and the employers insisted on treating workload allocation only under existing provisions regarding stress and health, rejecting our demand that workload models should be agreed in every institution. And, of course, there was nothing on pay.

In the context of huge and savage assaults on jobs, with potentially hundreds of thousands of casualised jobs going — and many already have — plus attacks on pay and conditions, a reject vote is exactly the right message to send to our employers. It signals that members still want to fight against the effects of marketisation, now exacerbated by Coronavirus, on a UK-wide basis, not institution by institution.

At last, a Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) has been called to draw up a national response to the attacks on jobs, pay and conditions being pushed through by institutions under the cover of Coronavirus. Whether we revive the terms of the 4 Fights dispute or draw up a new claim in light of the latest attacks as the HEC motion suggests, is a secondary question.

We need a national strategy in defence of HE and our jobs.

This needs to include a commitment to fight all job losses, starting with casualised workers and against all worsening of terms and conditions. It needs to include the demands of the 4 Fights in relation to casualisation, workloads and an equality pay claim, and address the intersectionality of the pay gap whilst strengthening the emphasis on the race pay gap and employment of black staff.

Crucially, it needs to reject the idea of pay cuts implicit in HQ’s ‘Jobs First’ strategy. This is a policy that has never been endorsed by union members, but it would erode terms and conditions, and fracture national pay arrangements without defending jobs, especially of casualised staff.

Marian Mayer
Jo McNeill
Sean Wallis
Mark Abel
(Four Fights negotiators 2019-20)


UCU Left ‘Four Fights’ Negotiators’ statement, 6/3/2020

Lobby of Woburn House

Lobbying UCEA HQ in December

Dear colleagues

We are writing as UCULeft ‘Four Fights’ negotiators who have been engaged in complex negotiations which are ongoing.

It is important to note that these negotiations have not yet resulted in an offer. Nothing is on the table and nothing is agreed.

The current situation is that after constructive discussions on the pay-related elements of the claim, the employers’ representatives were sent away to consult with their members.

In this context we are concerned that the General Secretary put out a statement on Thursday that was neither discussed nor agreed with the negotiators. In that statement she says that “If we can get an offer that represents the kind of movement I have set out here on all four parts of the dispute, I will recommend that our higher education committee (HEC) should consult members on whether to accept it.”

Negotiators are elected by members to engage directly with the employers to attempt to settle a dispute. During the course of negotiations we make proposals to the employers, knowing that whatever we might negotiate, there is a democratic process that holds us to account.

Offers, deals and accountability

HEC has agreed the following process for dealing with any offer from the employers. We have not had an offer, but were we to get one this is what would happen.

  1. First, negotiators would discuss it as a package and consider whether or not to recommend it for consultation as the best that could be achieved through negotiations. If it were not ready to go out, we would go straight back to the employers to negotiate further.
  2. Once it was sent out, members would see the offer, consult over and debate it in branch meetings or strike meetings, and elect delegates to a UK-wide meeting of branch reps.
  3. At that meeting, branch representatives would debate the offer at a UK-wide level, and vote on it (in a weighted vote) to decide whether to recommend to HEC as to whether or not to put it out to members.
  4. HEC would then take a vote on whether or not that offer should be sent out for a consultative ballot for members to vote on. HEC’s decision will be based on the recommendations of branch reps from the delegates meeting.

It is also strange to see a General Secretary proposing to recommend a deal that has not yet been made. It is standard practice in negotiations to say that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. The assessment of whether an offer is acceptable cannot be made until all the details are confirmed. This is not yet the situation.

Negotiating on Pay

The second issue concerns headline pay. On Tuesday, UCU negotiators adopted a negotiating position of putting 3% on the table to give UCEA the chance to consult their members about the potential for a rapid resolution of the dispute in the context of a serious global health crisis that could engulf us all.

Let’s not forget that UCU’s claim is for RPI+3%. The employers are sitting on reserves of £44bn. They can afford to meet our claim in full.

This was, and is, a genuine offer to try to resolve the dispute, but it is for members and delegates in the process outlined above to decide whether or not it is sufficient to resolve it.

It is difficult to discuss an offer that does not exist! But were we to get an offer we would have to make a serious decision as to whether we as negotiators, collectively or individually, can recommend it to members to be decided on by the process outlined above.

All the negotiators are strengthened by every single striker and picketer. We now need to sustain and strengthen the action.

Our strikes are our strongest leverage. We can win this together.

Mark Abel
Marian Mayer
Jo McNeill
Sean Wallis

Let’s push on to victory

London College of Fashion Dundee Picket
After the first five of our 14 strike days, the employers are looking for ways to settle. There were talks last week in both disputes and more to follow this week.

Both sides know that the future direction of higher education is at stake. The employers’ commitment to marketisation means that only the bottom line counts in the scramble for dominance or survival. Students are palmed off with an increasingly inferior educational experience as they are crammed into lecture halls and their contact time is cut.

While for staff, the imperative is driving down the wage bill by whatever means available. Wave after wave of voluntary severances push workloads to levels incompatible with healthy lives. A reliance on the cheapest possible employment arrangements – zero-hours contracts, worker and agency contracts which don’t come with employee rights, and short-term contracts – keep people guessing about how long they will be earning.


None of this is because the sector is impoverished. Only the contrary, higher education is richer than it has ever been. Even after the splurges on new buildings and the grasping of Vice Chancellors enriching themselves, universities are sitting on billions in reserves.

Our strike has put the employers on the back-foot. They did not expect the level of support for the demands that we have put forward.

Our demands are necessary and urgent for our members, but also counter the fragmentation and marketisation of the sector. Reinforcing the national mutual agreement to maintain the USS pension scheme and creating a new national agreement to set a floor for employment standards would limit the scope for dangerous speculation at the expense of the sector, students and staff.

How are we doing so far?

We are making real progress on USS. The employers are increasingly learning to accept they cannot assume they can pass on escalating costs to staff and accepting that ‘de-risking’ – a strategy they pursued since 2014 – is a non-starter. We have not won yet, but if we do win, we will complete unfinished business from 2018.

We are also making progress in the Four Fights, with the employers realising they are going to have to reach a national agreement of minimum standards of some sort. Our negotiators are making some progress. The employers are trying to say that they ‘have no mandate’ to enter into such an agreement. But they have gradually made concessions.

UCU negotiators are seeking from UCEA the following:

  • a UK level sector wide agreement establishing a series of expectations of employment rights and working conditions for the Higher Education sector, including abolition of zero-hours contracts and ‘worker contracts’ (apart from genuine one-off engagements).
  • a set of core principles for tackling race and gender inequality on pay outcomes and an implementation timescale.
  • a set of commitments on workload review that reinforce the Pay Framework 2004 principle of Equal Pay for Equal Value is properly realised in terms of time and bring workloads under control.
  • to a meaningful pay increase based on RPI that meets the joint unions’ claim of ‘keep up and catch up’.

If we want to defend academic freedom in every university, we have to set minimum employment standards for the sector. A national agreement will have to be backed up by local negotiations that enforce minimum standards at each institution. There can be no slippage of national minimum standards. We have to stop a race to the bottom.


The sector is institutionally racist and sexist. The further you go up the payscale in departments and management structures, the smaller the proportion of women and BAME staff. Appointing a few professors or senior managers won’t cut it – the universities are structurally discriminatory.

Addressing casualisation and the two or three tier workforce is a basic necessity to address inequality. It is no accident that the universities with the greatest gender pay gaps are medical and research-intensive universities. Casualisation and poor promotion prospects are the ‘glass ceilings’ – the structural impediments to addressing inequality.

The money is there

So far the employers have made no meaningful improvement on the pay offer. That has to change. Our pay has fallen 20% in real terms while university incomes from student fees have skyrocketed. Staff costs are now 55% of budgets – a record low (in the 1970s they were 70% of budgets). The sector has reserves in excess of £44bn, with surpluses of over £1bn a year coming in. The money is there. We need to force the employers to rethink what they do with the money that is sloshing around the sector.

It was strikes that broke the employers’ determination to trash USS in 2018, and it has been our strikes that have dragged the employers to concede further.

We have to strengthen our action, and we have the advantage of having our students on our side. We know our action is impacting on them, but they also appreciate we are fighting for the future of the sector. We are fighting for them, whether they wish to have a future in academic employment or not.

We have to organise to win. This is not the time to let the picket lines dwindle. But we also need to reach out to the rest of the trade union and labour movement for moral and financial support. Whenever we do so we get a great response.

Sector-changing deals are within sight provided we keep the pressure up!

The Results Are In – Members are Ready to Fight!

  • Members vote more than 3:1 Yes
  • 14 more branches join the fight, 8 post-92
  • Over 50,000 HE members in 74 universities able to strike

The latest round of ballots in Higher Education were reported on Wednesday 29 January.

Another 12 institutions have joined the “Four Fights” dispute, 8 of which are post-92, and 6 have gained a strike mandate in the USS pensions fight.

It brings the total number of universities taking part to 74, 14 of which are post-92.

Two institutions have mandates for both disputes, and the University of Oxford, which won a mandate on pay but narrowly missed the threshold on USS, also crossed the threshold. Similarly University of East Anglia gained a mandate on pay.

In total, 14 additional branches have gained a mandate for strike action over one or both disputes, including Imperial College London, which also balloted locally over pay (they are outside national pay bargaining).

The figures are impressive. Slightly more than 4,500 balloted members have joined the USS fight, taking the total percentage of balloted members eligible to strike to around 87% of the pre-92 USS sector.

In the pay dispute, the total number of additional strikers is slightly more, which increases the strike coverage from 60% to 67% of the entire HE sector.

Using 2019 balloted membership figures*, the number of balloted members in branches able to participate in strikes now exceeds 50,000.

GTVO success

Some branches raised their turnout very substantially between October 2019 and January 2020.

Bath Spa, the University of the Arts London (UAL) and the University of Worcester all increased their turnout by 20 percentage points. For example UAL (with nearly 700 members balloted), increased their turnout from 34% to 54%.

Topping the list of ‘gainers’, the Royal College of Art (100 members) increased their turnout by 28 percentage points.

Unfortunately Worcester just missed out of 50% — another victim of the Tory Anti-Union Law.

Members vote Yes to action

But this is turnout. What matters democratically is whether members are voting Yes. The Yes votes are highly impressive. The average Yes strike vote on the Four Fights claim was 76%, and on USS, 79.4%.

The ballots also cover Action Short of a Strike, where numbers and mandates are very similar (Four Fights: 85% Yes, USS: 83% Yes).

Members are expecting to be asked to take 14 days’ strike action over USS, and possibly over pay. Anyone who thinks that members are not prepared to take hard-hitting action, or want yet another “consultation” needs to look closely at the ballot results.

The results are in. Members are ready to fight, and members in 15 more branches have proved it.

Balloted institutions

The institutions which achieved a turnout of 50% or more are:

1. King’s College London
2. Imperial College London
3. Keele University
4. University of Oxford (already has live ballot on Pay)
5. SOAS, University of London (also on Pay)
6. Birkbeck College, University of London (also on Pay)

Pay/four fights
1. SOAS, University of London (also on USS)
2. The University of Huddersfield
3. Birkbeck College, University of London (also on USS)
4. The University of Winchester
5. University of the Arts London
6. De Montfort University
7. University of East Anglia (already has a live ballot on USS)
8. University of Greenwich
9. University of East London
10. Leeds Trinity University
11. Bath Spa University
12. Royal College of Art

Total number of institutions now able to strike over USS or pay/four fights: 14 + 60 = 74.

Not a single branch balloted voted No. But thanks to the Tory anti-union laws, thousands of members are not permitted to strike.


*Membership has grown since, in some branches by as much as 20%.

UCEA: Must Try Harder

Strike to win - pickets and student supporters in Cambridge, 4 December 2019

Strike to win – pickets and student supporters in Cambridge, 4 December 2019

Colleagues will have seen the email from UCU General Secretary Jo Grady today, Tuesday 28 February, announcing UCEA’s “final offer” on the Four Fights dispute.

This “final offer”:

  • offers no increase on the 1.8% pay imposed (a real-terms pay cut of 0.8% against August RPI)
  • makes limited concessions on casualisation, but mostly says that employers should obey the law
  • makes no tangible progress on reducing catastrophic levels of workload
  • makes no tangible progress on gender and race inequality

The offer is an insult, but it does show that UCEA is frightened by the prospect of our further strike action. They are trying to buy us off, but with crumbs rather than anything meaningful.

This shows that we were right to take the 8 days of strike action, but that we will need to put on further pressure through our next 14 days of strike action in order to get a real offer.

We do not agree to trade off the interests of different groups of members.

UCEA claims it did not have a mandate to make more far-reaching commitments. But if their subscribers are under pressure from branches preparing to strike, they are far more likely to give them such a mandate.


Jo Grady’s email bypassed UCU’s own lay elected negotiators, who did not agree its content.

But most seriously of all, it pre-empted UCU’s own Higher Education Committee, who are set to meet on Thursday.

A democratic organisation such as a trade union would normally avoid making any statement until the elected officers and reps responsible for making a decision are able to meet.

What now?

Our eight days of action shocked the employers. But it is our threat of future strike action is what is really worrying them.

We should continue to mobilise for action. The employers do not want us to take strike action on the same timeframe as the 2018 USS dispute as they know how effective we can be at that point in the academic year. So this is exactly what we need to do. We can get a far better deal than this.

It is standard practice for employers to say their offer is “final”. There is no reason to accept, and everything to lose if we do.

HEC must throw out this ‘offer’ — and UCEA must try harder.

HE Strike Bulletin #1

Take back the university – Unite and Fight

Lobby of UUK, 2018

UCU members have achieved something many thought impossible. We bust through the Tory anti-union threshold of 50% turnout in sixty universities. Activists have breathed new life into the campaign to defend USS, and broadened the fight to the post-92 universities, winning ballots on pay, equality, casualisation and workload.

Democracy, struggle and ballots

This happened thanks to the flowering of democracy in the union. The 2018 strike movement demanded accountability of union leaders in congresses and conferences. One general secretary election, a turbulent congress, recall congress and democracy commission later and we have a renewed determination to fight at the grassroots.

We also have a new general secretary from the left, and a left-activist HE leadership (see below for next year’s candidates). Now 80% of members in the USS pre-92 universities are on strike. The remainder are in branches whose turnout was less than 10% short of that required – in some cases they were only a few votes short. Many post-92 colleges were also close to the 50% turnout.

A reballot campaign – aligned to the strike campaign – can bring them out.

But branches seeking a rapid reballot have not been supported at HQ. Three weeks after the ballot results came out, we should be starting repeat ballots at the beginning of the strike wave. HEC voted to relaunch the ballot campaign to allow branches to join a second wave of strikes. Branches need to demand a reballot now.

Uniting to win

Now post-92 universities have joined the fightback. The ‘four fights’ campaign unites the sector. In total, nearly two thirds of the union’s HE membership are striking in defence of pay, against casualisation, escalating workload and – perhaps most importantly of all – to close the appalling gender and race pay gaps that blight our sector.

Members in post-92 universities were unable to take action in 2018. They were able to deliver solidarity to their pre-92 colleagues. But the astonishing mass strike movement in the colleges inevitably centred on the ‘old’ universities. The action has spread to post-92.

After the gold rush

Post-92 universities bore the first, shattering brunt of this market attack, suffering devastating cuts and closures. Students pay more, staff earn less. And future taxpayers will pay for it.

In the 2010 general election, the Lib Dems claimed that scrapping tuition fees was “non negotiable”. Then they did a U-turn to enter a coalition with the Tories. That ConDem government tripled fees to £9,000 a year and part-abolished the block grant. Then in 2014 they removed limits on student recruitment, unleashing the gold rush and war-of-all-against-all we see today.

Since then university management greed has expanded courses and student numbers. Over £10bn was borrowed for new campuses and buildings. The Treasury’s tuition fee debt mountain is now around £100bn, half of which will never be repaid.

University employers are gradually waking up to the reality that this gold rush must come to an end. Augar proposed cutting the home student fee to £7,500 a year. This would wipe out profit margins universities are banking on.

The importance of this general election to change course cannot be understated. Both the Labour and Green Party manifestos call for abolishing tuition fees and bringing the HE market under control.

Despite record surpluses as much as £2bn a year, pay has been cut by 20% in real terms over the last ten years. Fee-market uncertainty encourages expansion at the expense of job insecurity. Workload has skyrocketed. Workload and job insecurity are two sides of the same coin: the whip of the causal contract driving up workload for all.

Market competition and secrecy means UCL does not know what Imperial has borrowed or whether its sums add up, and vice versa. USS depends on a ‘mutuality’ principle (all universities share pension risk in case one goes bankrupt). This is undermined by mutual distrust and corporate self-interest. That is why a government guarantee to underpin the scheme makes sense.

We can win

Our demands are ridiculously reasonable. The sector is making record surpluses. In many colleges, interest payments on borrowing exceed the few extra million apiece that would be needed to settle this dispute. But if the Treasury needs to help out, so what? This is a national dispute, universities are a national asset, and we need a national settlement.

In pre-92, if UUK agreed to end the fictional ‘de-risking’ USS valuation model, they would immediately recoup 3.1% of salary costs. USS does not need extra contributions. Between 2017 and 2019, its assets grew by £10bn to £74bn. The increases USS is demanding cannot yield more than £1bn over the next two years.

This strike is a warning shot. Eight days show we are serious. By uniting together we have the power to shut down the whole sector. We may need to strike next year.

Fighting for the future

Our strikes prove that the university is the staff. The ‘academic team’ is the entire staff body, from porter to professor. Education is the gift each generation nurtures and hands to the next. Thus universities are central to ensuring that climate science is implemented, and the world economy is moved onto a sustainable basis.

We stand with our students, and the rest of society. University funding is a pact with society: academic freedom is a freedom of a free society. We stand in solidarity with student and staff protesters in Hong Kong and other countries where those rights are being trampled on. We stand against all who would divide us by race, religion, sexuality, gender or physical ability.

Everyone has the right to benefit from a free education. Its time to unite and fight for the future of Higher Education – and for a freer, more sustainable society for all.

The fight is on

Build the HE strikes: organise to win

UCU has called eight days of strike action over Higher Education pay and USS pensions before Christmas, one full week: 25-29 November, culminating with the next school student climate strike day #29November, and three days: 2-4 December, ending on UCU’s Disability Day of Action.

Once again, UCU Left members on the HEC were instrumental in ensuring that the union stayed on track. Our strategy of balloting on pay and pensions together has paid off, with the biggest ever vote in HE for action over pay, casualisation, workload and equality. Now the strategy is to bring members out, united, on the same days over both disputes. A work to contract begins at the same time.

Across UCU, in branch after branch, members voted overwhelmingly YES for action. The reason that some branches will not be on strike is only that their turnout was below 50% of their membership (the anti-union threshold). For example, De Montfort University got a 74% yes vote but a 49% turnout. King’s College London got 81% yes on a 48.7% turnout, and so on. Before the Tory Anti Union Law, these votes would be considered outstanding!

Despite this, this strike call means that 80% of members in USS institutions are being asked to come out on strike. On the Four Fights dispute (pay, equality, casusalisation and workload), more than 60% of members across the sector pre- and post-92 are being called out.

At the same time, UCU agreed to reballot members in branches whose turnout was 40% or over, with other branches choosing to opt in. Ballots can begin after re-notification to employers, so can coincide with the start of this round of strike action. A second wave of strike action can begin next year.

The fifth of the nominated strike days coincides with the date of the next mass Friday climate strike called by school students. Striking UCU members will now be able to respond en masse to the call by young people for trade unionists to support the movement for urgent action on the climate emergency.

We may also be joined by postal workers in the CWU, who have already voted for strikes before Christmas in defence of jobs and against plans to dismember the postal service.

Our strikes will also take place in the run-up to the most important general election for decades. The outcome of the December 12 poll will determine the future of post-16 education for years to come. The issues we are fighting over – pay, pensions, equality, casualisation and workloads – have all been brought to crisis point by the marketisation of the HE sector driven by the Tories’ neoliberal agenda. Our strikes can bring the issues of the student debt burden and the corrosiveness of competition between institutions to the forefront of the election campaign.

Branches and Regions need to begin preparation for the strike now.

We need the big lively picket lines which characterised last year’s USS dispute. We need imaginative teach-out events which can involve students and UCU members in joint discussion and activity.

And we need striking branches to help with the reballoting effort in neighbouring institutions that didn’t make the threshold the first time around.

The last USS strike saw the union grow by 50% in the branches that took strike action. Members joined to take part in the strike in large numbers, some joining on the picket line. This strike will be a fantastic opportunity to recruit more members to the union and further strengthen branches.

Strike committees & democracy

UCU’s last protracted strike, over USS, was sustained by strike committees in many branches. Strike committees were the backbone of the strike: they organised pickets from day to day, gave members a place to express their concerns and debate the way forward with fellow-pickets, and took initiatives like lobbying UUK and talks – and even protesting outside the union HQ during the #NoCapitulation moment.

Some branches have organised strike committees before, but for others the idea is new. Strike committees are simply open democratic fora, open to all strikers, to conduct the business of the strike. Ideally they should be run daily during the strike – that way strikers know when and where they need to go to debate the lessons and decide on next steps.

NB. Ahead of the strike, branch reps will need to book warm, sizeable rooms for strikers to come to!

There will be a Higher Education Sector Conference on USS in Manchester on Friday 6 December – two days after the strike, to which branches can send delegates. Note that to book delegate space, branches must submit delegate names (may be provisional and swapped later) to UCU by Friday, 22 November.

UCU’s Democracy Congress will take place the next day. (NOTE. The deadline for booking delegates is this Thursday, 7 November.) Many of the issues of how such strikes should be run will be raised at that conference as well.

Teach-outs & themed strike days

The last USS strike showed tremendous enthusiasm for protests and initiatives. Teach-outs with students and staff were extremely popular. These can also generate material for distributing on themed strike days.

In this strike we can also bring back themed strike days – something that UCU did very effectively in the HE pay dispute in 2016.

To be clear, a themed strike day is not a day when we only strike over one issue. (We will strike over pay and pensions each day in USS branches.)

A themed strike day is simply a day when branches or regions adopt an issue and promote it actively on that day – in banners, leaflets, press material etc.

In addition to strike days over pensions, for example, we must have a strike day themed on the Environment on 29 November, linking up with the climate movement!

We can also take actions highlighting pension poverty, poverty pay and long hours, casualisation in its many forms, the gender pay and pension gap, race inequality and migrant rights, and disability inequality and access – the last day of strike action is UCU’s Disability Day.

Running through the core of the disputes, we will spell out our alternative: What the University is For. We all know the market madness lies behind most of the evils we are striking against.

We can invite MPs and prospective MPs to participate in teach-outs. The election is a chance to put a spotlight on the crisis in post-16 education.

Strike funds

Members will be concerned about their personal finances. So we will need an effective communications strategy from Head Office outlining the financial support available and how to apply for it.

UCU has already announced national fund criteria:

  • £75/day for every union member earning under £30,000 a year from Day 2.
  • £50/day for union members earning £30,000 or more from Day 3.

Branches should also set up local strike funds (guidance from Head Office will be available shortly), and should reach out to sister unions and supportive organisations to add to these local funds. Many pre-92 HE branches already have local funds, but the same is not true for many post-92 branches. Either way, local funds should prioritise the casualised and lowest paid.

In the run up to the General Election there are likely to be lots of political meetings. Organise strikers to do delegation work. Try to attend and speak at some of these and ask for donations. Ask for a speaker slot at your local Trades Council meeting and at local constituency Labour Party meetings. Contact active pensioner and anti-austerity groups.

Most meetings will be happy to hold a bucket collection for our cause, and every penny will help towards ensuring our members don’t struggle financially while fighting these disputes.

Solidarity & reballots

Both disputes are national disputes with the employers, over pay, casualisation, workload and equality with UCEA; and over USS, with Universities UK. Both employer organisations are supposed to represent the interest of the employers collectively in negotiating with the union. All branches are in dispute, even if they are not on strike.

Branches taking strike action will need solidarity from the wider UCU. They will be striking as a first wave, with the expectation that their colleagues in other institutions will be joining them in a second wave. But for this to work we will need a renewed effort to win the turnouts needed in universities and colleges.

Strikers can visit and enthuse branch meetings, department meetings and even floor-walk with reps to Get the Vote Out – and collect for strike funds.

NB. Venues for strike committee meetings and teach-outs can in principle also be booked in these colleges.

We are one union – and we are united to win these two disputes.

We won the vote – Now let’s start the action

Picketing UCL, March 2018

The ballot results are in. UCU members throughout Higher Education are ready to fight to defend their pay and pensions, and to stand up against inequality, unmanageable workloads and casualisation.

On pay, 73% of members voted yes to strike action, on a 49% total turnout. 55 university branches declared with a turnout greater than 50%. On USS, 44 out of 64 USS institutions hit the threshold. Herriot-Watt topped the poll at 71.59% turnout.

Branches in Northern Ireland do not have to beat the 50% threshold, so Queens University Belfast, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College Belfast are also able to strike.

Pay (Four Fights) Ballot USS Ballot

62.33% of balloted UCU members are in branches eligible to take strike action over pay. In the USS pre-92 universities, the equivalent figure is 80.62%.

These are the highest votes ever in a UCU national pay campaign, outstripping those in last year’s pay ballot.

The votes were overwhelmingly for action. But thanks to the Tory Anti-Union Laws, turnout is the key. 55 branches exceeded the 50% threshold required. Given the obstacle that this represents for trade unions, our results are very positive. The union decided to conduct disaggregated ballots precisely so that some branches would be able to fight even if we didn’t reach the threshold overall.

What must happen now

It is time to name the date for action.

The 55+ branches with legal mandates must begin escalating action in mid-November (see list below). The other branches need to continue the campaign to reballot – see below.

The pension action will begin to put pressure on the employers in UCEA and UUK and on the pension bosses at USS. We know they won’t shift their positions without it.

The pay action (including equality, workload and casualisation) unifies members young and old, and unites us with our colleagues in other unions in each university or college. Pay also unifies the sector, pre- and post-92.

Successful pay ballots allow other workers who are not in UCU to participate in strikes. (It is unlawful for employers to discriminate by union membership and branches can extract statements from HR to that effect.) It also means that post-92 institutions will be able to take strike action alongside pre-92, offering mutual solidarity and presenting a united front in defence of HE and the staff who work in HE.

It is time to lift the lid on local issues of casualisation and gender and race pay inequality – and show they are endemic to our sector.

We can take action alongside postal workers defending their jobs and school students fighting climate change.

General Election

The general election gives us the perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on the future of Higher Education.

If we want to insist that government has a responsibility to ensure that universities pay their staff properly, address the scandals of rising casualisation and unequal pay, and protect the USS pension scheme for future generations with a government guarantee, we could not ask for a better moment to take action!

Reballots and organising solidarity

Meanwhile, branches who reached 40% or more should be reballoted with the aim of joining a second wave of action in January. Many branches are only a few dozen votes short of the threshold and have a very good chance of breaking through on a reballot. Bringing out more branches would be an excellent way for our action to escalate in the new year. See the graphs above. Branches which fell below 40% should have the right to opt in to the reballot.

All those not in a position to strike yet can support striking members by contributing to a strike fund levy.

UCU in Transformation – One Year On
London, Sat 2 Nov 11-5
Called by London Region UCU

In the meantime we face a major organising task. Regions have a crucial role to link up branches striking with those balloting, organising regional demonstrations and encouraging demonstrative action.

The first step to linking up activists and reps will be the #UCUTransformed2019 one-day conference called by London Region UCU on Saturday 2 November.

This will be the first chance to debate the next steps in the struggle with other reps and activists. Reps in branches that missed the threshold will want to discuss the Herriot Watt GTVO strategy. Other regions should call activist meetings as soon as possible to do the same.

Branches with live ballot mandates

The institutions in which members can now take action are:

  • Aston University
  • Bangor University
  • Bishop Grosseteste University
  • Bournemouth University
  • Cardiff University
  • Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Durham University
  • Edge Hill University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Glasgow School of Art
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Liverpool Hope University
  • Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA)
  • Loughborough University
  • Newcastle University
  • Open University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Queen’s University, Belfast
  • Roehampton University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • St Mary’s University College Belfast
  • Stranmillis University College
  • The Institute of Development Studies
  • The University of Aberdeen
  • The University of Bath
  • The University of Dundee
  • The University of Kent
  • The University of Leeds
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The University of Sheffield
  • The University of Stirling
  • Ulster University
  • University College London
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bradford
  • University of Brighton
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Essex
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Leicester
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of London, City
  • University of London, Goldsmiths
  • University of London, Queen Mary
  • University of London, Royal Holloway
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Reading
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Strathclyde
  • University of Sussex
  • University of Wales
  • University of Warwick
  • University of York

Get organised to defend USS and pay

Take the fight to Boris – Defend Higher Education!

What is at stake

This is what is happening to our USS Defined Benefit pension. If we were to accept UUK’s offer, USS will pay us a pension worth less, pound-for-pound, than three quarters of the value (72.22%) of the 2011 CARE scheme.

And that scheme was a huge cut from the Final Salary scheme that had existed for years.

Graph: The incredible shrinking USS CARE scheme. Pound for pound value of USS member contributions.

This is a deliberate policy by the employers, working in concert with those in USS and the City who would like to see the back of Defined Benefit. In 2018 UUK used their majority on the Board (and the casting vote of the Chair) to impose Defined Contribution.

The entire case for increasing contributions is predicated on a ‘deficit’ that has been widely debunked. The simple fact is that if the pension scheme were not ‘de-risked’ there would be no projected deficit. ‘De-risking’ (selling off investment assets and buying gilts) began after the employers demanded it in 2014.

This attack is not a one-off. It won’t be stopped by negotiations — however clever the negotiators. Sally Hunt knew that. That’s why in 2017, she used her influence on the HEC to build the strike. She silenced the right wing of the HEC, openly campaigned for strikes and allied with the Left to make sure they took place.

Members took up the call and responded brilliantly. 14 days of strikes stopped USS and UUK wrecking the Defined Benefit scheme altogether.

We could have fought and won to commit UUK to No Detriment. Had we done that, we would not have to fight now.

But two years on, USS and UUK are turning their backs on the Joint Expert Panel, the result of the 2018 dispute, ignoring UCU, and demanding 20% more from members — all for the same pension benefits.

With the employers imposing 1.8% on pay, USS members will have an effective 0.2% pay increase (CPI, meanwhile, is at 2% and RPI 2.8%). This is a huge pay cut. 

Worse, increased employer contributions will inevitably provoke the university employers. Trinity College Cambridge has left the scheme. As costs on them rise, universities will demand 100% DC. And every cut in DB pension value means less for members to defend.

We cannot leave it to the Joint Expert Panel to rescue us. USS is being undermined by market greed.

Record profits, winners and losers — staff and students lose

Our pension is the victim of Higher Education marketisation.

It is no accident that 2011 marks the beginning of the decline for USS, a scheme that survived stock market crashes and paid 1/80th Final Salary for decades. Before 2011 members paid 6.35% employer contributions. After UCU lost that round, contributions were forced up to 7.5%, and Final Salary was closed to new members.

Before 2011 the employers’ surpluses (profits) were small. Universities were not expected to turn a profit. For example, in 2003, HESA reported a sector surplus (both pre- and post- 92) of £65 million.

But by 2016 the sector surplus was £1.5 billion (on stricter reporting standards)!

The mad competitive scramble to recruit undergraduate students and bank £9,000+ tuition fees has set university against university, college against college. It has encouraged them to borrow over £10 billion in capital projects, and it has created winners and losers.

Graph: Winners and losers. Surpluses as a percentage of total income by institution (2016-17), HEFCE.

Graph: Winners and losers. Surpluses as a percentage of total income by institution (2016-17), HEFCE. Total surpluses in 2017 were reported to be £1.1 billion.

The premise of USS’s stability is mutuality — that the sector works together to provide pensions and the employers together contribute stability to the investment strategy by underwriting the portfolio. This is known as the ‘employer’s covenant’.

But Higher Education competition is destroying mutuality and trust. Why would UCL loan to USS to underwrite the risk of King’s, its competitor down the road? Why would King’s underwrite UCL?

Anyone who thinks that accepting this offer will ‘tide over’ USS has not been paying attention.

Members struck for 14 days in 2018 because they knew that our fight to defend USS was also a fight to defend the future of Higher Education. We had to resist the war of all against all that the sector had become locked into.

Made in Westminster

In 2016, HE Minister Jo Johnson drove through the Higher Education and Research Act. This allowed universities to declare bankruptcy, as Greenwich School of Management (aka ‘GSM London’) did in July.

No wonder employers are concerned about carrying each other’s risk!

The Tory Government is divided over Brexit. A snap General Election is likely. We have a tremendous opportunity to put Higher Education on the map and put the responsibility for this crisis back where it belongs — in Government. The demand for a Government Guarantee to underwrite USS makes total sense. But we need one now, not when USS is frittered away to nothing.

Since our strikes in HE, Further Education members struck over pay and marched on Parliament against cuts in funding. Our members’ action put FE on the political map and extracted £400 million from a right-wing government led by public school boys!

Taking action in own defence gives members confidence to stand shoulder to shoulder with our EU colleagues and students over Brexit, and stand up to any attempt to divide us in a snap election.

Get organised for Round 2

We have to fight to defend our pensions and pay, and we have to organise the fightback now.

As well as pay cuts, the other symptoms of HE marketisation are rising inequality, casualisation and workload.

We have a fantastic opportunity to bring all of these fights together in the two ballots, uniting both sectors.

Balloting begins next week.

The only way to defend our pensions is through strike action beginning in the Autumn Term. We need to approach Get the Vote Out with military seriousness in branch after branch.

We won the first battle, but if we don’t fight now, we will lose the war. We need to mobilise everyone who stood on the picket line in 2018 to organise meetings in department after department — it is time to unite to win the ballot to defend USS, defend pay and defend Higher Education for future generations.

Get organised to Get the Vote Out

Build the ballot over pay, equality, workload and casualisation

Get the vote out flyer

UCU has called a five-week ballot for industrial action over pay this term. It opens on Tuesday 15 January and closes on Friday 22 February. It is timed for the maximum duration while still allowing members to take hard-hitting strike action this term and hit exams next term. So if we win the ballot we can take serious action.

We need to get organised.

First and foremost, this ballot is an organising challenge for every branch. Thanks to the Tory anti-union Trade Union Act, more than 50% of members eligible to vote must participate. Even if 100% vote YES, if only 49% vote, the vote does not count.

The main reason members do not vote is simply that they forget. Paper ballot envelopes and forms are put aside and forgotten about. We have to set up the type of grassroots organisation that makes sure that everyone is asked to vote, encouraged and reminded right up to the deadline.

We know that when we get this right, we get a high turnout.

We know how to do this, but we are all shockingly busy. We know workload – one of the key demands of the campaign – is ridiculous in our sector.

We must make a conscious effort to get organised. We have to treat the organisation of getting the vote out with exactly the same seriousness and care as when we organised the strike over pensions last year, and when we fought local campaigns over redundancies in the past.

The evidence shows it can be done, but we have to make a decisive shift to get the turnout.This is the second ballot we have had over the same pay round.

In the Autumn, the overall turnout was 42%. It was a ‘disaggregated’ ballot: each branch was counted separately. 7 institutions got over 50% turnout. One branch, Herriot-Watt, got a 64% turnout, many of the big branches got between 40 and 50%. The votes for strikes and ASOS were overwhelming, but they could not be actioned.

What we need to do

Every branch needs to

  • call organising meetings to kick off the ballot;
  • then organise a series of meetings in departments and buildings to explain the issues, and encourage debate;
  • organise members to systematically remind colleagues in each department, just as we would if organising a picket line rota.

The 50% threshold is a deliberate anti-democratic burden, designed to prevent unions from striking even when votes in favour are overwhelming.

But it is also a challenge to every member. What is the point of voting if your vote is wasted? The message has to be

Step 1: vote yourself, and Step 2: ask your colleagues to vote. Generations fought for the right to vote. Don’t let passivity undermine democracy.

We need to set up action committees to carry this out. We cannot leave it to a few branch reps. Every member has a stake in this fight.

This is a political fight as well as an organisational challenge. In the autumn, the high YES votes indicate members were convinced by the arguments.

  • Pay. Our pay has been cut by at least 15% since 2008. UCU’s latest figures put the drop by as much as 21%. Every teaching assistant struggling to get by, every teaching fellow on a part -time contract, every researcher on fixed funding stuck near the bottom of the pay spine, each one is 15-20% poorer than they would have been a decade ago. Cuts in the rate for the job mean everyone is devalued. The pay offer of 2% this year is still a pay cut. Members in USS branches can expect their pay cut further.
  • Inequality. One result of low pay is that staff try to increase their pay by other means. We are seeing more individual bargaining and consequentially greater pay inequality. Individual bargaining (threatening to move and demanding a pay rise or moving and negotiating) tends to favour white male staff over women and BAME staff, and increases gender and ethnicity pay gaps. The shocking stories published by the BBC last week are a symptom of this.
  • Workload and casualisation. High workload and low pay are two sides of the same coin. The employers have used the fear factor of redundancies and casualisation to force up workload in our sector. If we do not fight to secure the casualised, the employers will casualise the secure. As the USS dispute showed, strike action allows us to push back against the workload tide we all struggle with. This ballot helps us put the issue on the map and demand action to cut excessive workload or increase paid hours.

New arguments

But the situation has developed in two important respects. What follows is a sketch of the new arguments we are likely to face, and some suggested counter-arguments to make. In USS branches, a strong YES vote also puts us in the best position to ballot over USS cuts.

Objection 1. Brexit

The argument goes something like this.

The future of the UK, and UK universities, is uncertain because of Brexit. Universities don’t know what will happen to student recruitment. We don’t even know whether UK universities will be able to bid for EU research funds, or if they can, on what basis. Now is the wrong time to fight. We should ‘wait and see’.

This is a perfectly understandable argument, but the conclusions are wrong. Instead of waiting, we need a big YES vote to give the union and members a voice. A strong YES vote with a high turnout gives the union the mandate with the employers and government to be taken seriously. It puts the union in a position to negotiate with the employers over pay and jobs precisely at the time when the employers may be looking for job cuts and pay cuts to pay for the mess they have got themselves into.

We can decide what we do with that mandate once we have it. But first we have to get the votes.

The USS dispute taught members two important lessons: we have power when we strike and hit lessons and threaten exams, and – with a credible threat of strike action – ‘impossible’ demands become possible. In the middle of the strike, the Chinese Embassy relayed a threat from the PRC Government to Universities UK: if strikes hit exams, Chinese students will not come to the UK next year.

Crucially, we need to put the universities on the political radar as a sector to be strategically defended in the aftermath of Brexit.

This means members standing up to be counted, voting YES in large numbers and taking action to defend themselves and the sector. A strong strike/ASOS vote over pay is the best protection against threats to jobs. A well-organised Get the Vote Out operation can be repeated for a local ballot over redundancies. Brighton University had a strong GTVO campaign over redundancies. Despite being a post-92, they got over 50% turnout in the autumn.

Objection 2. The HE funding ‘crisis’

If one crisis were not bad enough, the Tories are flirting with the idea of creating another. Whereas the Brexit timetable appears to be outside their control, this ‘crisis’ is entirely of their making.

As we know, in 2011 the ConDem government jacked up undergraduate ‘home’ university fees from £6,500 (£3,000 paid by the student) to up to £9,000 per student. The universities charged the maximum, £9,000. At the same time, the Government set up a complex new loan system covering fees and maintenance grants, and partially abolished the block grant payable to each department.

The Government racked up a mountain of debt to pay for these loans, which the Treasury projected as £90bn by 2021, of which only half will probably be repaid. This is the first – and by far the largest – debt crisis, one they have mainly kept secret.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the Government took the next step in the ‘Willets Plan’ and abolished limits on student numbers (except for a small number of subjects like medicine).

These changes created a situation where universities realised they might make vast amounts of money by expanding in competition with other universities. The new motto of the sector, including of the posh universities, was ‘Pile ’em high and teach ’em cheap’.

Competition creates winners and losers, and the winners gambled in a building and borrowing boom. Universities that reckoned they could grow have borrowed huge sums. According to the Times newspaper, the sector has £10.8bn in debts. UCL tripled their undergraduate recruitment and are building a new campus in East London, where they will be joined by the University of the Arts. Both are borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds.

Meanwhile, other universities, particularly those traditionally recruiting working class or mature students (post-92s, Open and Birkbeck), are seeing student numbers fall. High fees and the opening of spaces in ‘big name’ colleges is hitting them first. The HE funding crisis started at colleges like London Met, and spread across post-92. It is now hitting pre-92 universities through restructuring and redundancies. The employers want to pass the risk and cuts on to staff, as the USS pension fight shows.

No-one is immune.

But the Tories are considering turning a chronic crisis into an acute one. They are leaking proposals from the Augur review of Higher Education funding they commissioned last year. This report seems likely to propose a cut in undergraduate ‘home’ tuition fees to £6,500 at exactly the same time as new EU students are reclassified as ‘overseas’.

Behind the scenes the universities are frantically lobbying the Government to stop the cut unless the Government makes good the difference. At least three prominent Tory ex-ministers have now spoken out publicly. There is no particular need for the Tories to press this button now. But it is a stark reminder that we have battles ahead.

We must not misunderstand the weakness on the Government side. Macho talk from the ‘Office for Students’ that ‘no university is too big to fail’ misses the obvious point that if even one small university closes, several thousands of students will be out on the street with debts and no degree – and the OfS has no Plan B. A spate of college and course closures triggered by Government incompetence would create a massive political crisis. US scandals like Corinthian Colleges and Trump University will be a tea party by comparison.

What does this mean for our ballot? Just like the arguments about Brexit, we have to argue that if we don’t fight, we will lose. A strong YES vote puts us in the best possible position to defend pay and resist job cuts, whether they be triggered by Brexit uncertainty, university restructuring or college closures. It also emphasises the point we made throughout previous strikes on every issue: we ask students to defend staff on strike, because through our strikes, staff are defending Higher Education.

The splits in the Tories show that we have everything to fight for.

In conclusion

The truth is that the collective ability of staff to shape the direction of Higher Education ultimately depends on our ability to win industrial action ballots.

We need to get organised. The stakes could not be higher.

Every member, every activist and every rep must be mobilised.

We have five weeks to defend our sector and win the turnout we need.