Up to 2.5 million students could face disruption as tens of thousands of university staff hit the job market on Thursday in what has been called the biggest strike in UK higher education history.
More than 70,000 staff, including lecturers, librarians and researchers, are to take part in the first of three days of strike action over pay, working conditions and pensions, with strikes expected at 150 universities.
The University and College Union (UCU) says the strike, which will also take place on Friday and Wednesday next week, will bring the sector to a standstill.
University administrators, cleaners, security and catering staff who are members of Unison are also striking over pay at 19 universities.
“Staff are burnt out but they are fighting back and they will bring the whole sector to a standstill,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady, who warned of “even bigger action” in the new year unless there was an improved offer from employers.
“The principals have only themselves to blame. Their woeful leadership has led to the biggest ever strike vote in our sector. Student stand with the staff because they know this cannot continue,” she said.
The UCU’s demands include a pay rise in recognition of the cost of living crisis, following this year’s 3% rise, and an end to insecure contracts. On pensions, the UCU wants employers to roll back cuts imposed this year, which they claim will see the average member lose around 35% of their future pension income.
Robert Halfon, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, said it was “hugely disappointing” that students who had already suffered during the pandemic would face further disruption to their learning due to industrial action.
“I urge all sides to work together so that students do not suffer further learning loss and I encourage any student who is concerned about the impact of strikes on their education to raise this with their university,” he said .
National Union of Students vice-president for higher education Chloe Field said students were supporting their lecturers. “We have always been clear that the employees’ working conditions are the students’ learning conditions, and for more than a decade both have been under attack from a sector that values profit over education.”
Raj Jethwa, Managing Director of Universities and the Colleges Employers’ Association, said: “Union leaders must give their members a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable because strike action does not generate new money for the sector.”
Meanwhile, Universities UK, which represents employers under the University Superannuation Scheme pension fund, said it remained one of the most attractive private pension schemes in the country.
Prof Steve West, the UUK president and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “Universities are well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on student learning and we are all working hard to put in place a range of measures to ensure this.”
The UCU campaign follows a series of strikes that were limited to smaller groups of universities. It is the latest in a wave of escalating industrial action taking place across the UK this winter, including action from tens of thousands of teachers in Scotland who are also due to strike on Thursday, with more dates planned for next year.
Industrial action by members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) is expected to close most schools in Scotland after union demands for a 10% pay rise for members were not met.