Strike action announced at Newcastle

Grace Dean reports on upcoming strike action at Newcastle.

Grace Dean
5th November 2019
Image: Nick Efford
The University and College Union (UCU) has announced impending strike action at 60 university campuses later this month.

Following the announcement on Thursday 31 October that 79% of UCU (University and Colleges Union) members backed strike action in response to a ballot over pension changes, and 74% regarding pay, equality, casualisation and workloads, it has today been declared that 60 university campuses will see strike action from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December.

Alongside Newcastle University, those affected also include Cambridge, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Bristol universities, which is estimated to impact over one million students.

Alongside these eight days of strike action, UCU members will also undertake 'action short of a strike', such as working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

Discussing the announcement, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions.

“Any general election candidate would be over the moon with a result along the lines of what we achieved last week. Universities can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on these issues and we will be consulting branches whose desire to strike was frustrated by anti-union laws about reballoting.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: "We are hopeful that the dispute can be resolved without industrial action, but plans are in place to ensure that any potential disruption to students and staff is minimised."

"We hope that UCU will now join us to consider governance reforms and alternative options for future valuations, which deliver a shared set of principles, increased transparency and a sustainable scheme," they said, and described the pensions changes as "both fair and reasonable", which the scheme allegedly being one of the bets in the country.


The ballot results

Of those who voted nationally , 79% backed strike action in the ballot over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Among Newcastle University UCU members, 77.78% voted in favour of industrial action including a strike, while 86.38% voted in favour of industrial action short of strike action, including a marking and assessment boycott. Newcastle saw a considerably higher voter turnout for this pension changes ballot than the national average, with 56.75% of Newcastle UCU members having voted, compared to 49% nationally.

Meanwhile, 74% of UCU members nationally backed strike actions in the ballot on pay, casualisation, equality and workloads; at Newcastle, 84.54% voted “yes” to the question: “are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of strike action?”

The UCU said that this support for strikes is symptomatic of serious issues in the higher education sector, and that, if universities do not adequately respond to these problems then strike action, which is estimated to affect around a million students, would be unavoidable.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The ballots reflect just how unhappy and angry staff are at the state of higher education in the UK.

“It is incredibly frustrating that we had to ballot members again, but universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions.

“Universities now have to come back to us prepared to work seriously to address these problems. If they choose to ignore this message from their staff then strike action looks inevitable.”


The 2018 strikes

In spring 2018, over 65 university campuses across the country, including Newcastle University, faced unprecedented levels of strike action which lasted for 65 days and involved approximately 190,000 academic members of staff due to pensions changes. The higher education ombudsman for England and Wales instructed some British universities to pay compensation for the loss of teaching hours after students complained of missed seminars and lectures and the associated stress. It is estimated that in total 575,000 teaching hours were lost, leading to over 80 complaints being received by The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, and an estimated 100,000 students signing a petition calling for compensation of their fees. At Newcastle, a petition to obtain “a refund for every lecture missed” at Newcastle University obtained over 11,000 signatures.

To reassure concerned students, Newcastle University Registrar John Hogan declared that "topics that have not been delivered because of industrial action will be excluded from any assessments and any money saved on the April salary roll will be invested directly for the benefit of students.”

Felecity Mitchel, the independent adjudicator, said, “Some providers have been better than others at finding ways to make up for the learning students have missed out on. Some providers have made lecture recordings, podcasts, and additional online materials available to students, or allowed them to sit in on other classes. Others have done nothing, and we don’t think that’s fair.

“We have made recommendations in a number of cases for partial refunds of tuition fees and payments for distress and inconvenience where we have decided the student has not been treated fairly.”

Newcastle University Student Council chose to take a neutral stance on the strikes after rejecting two rival motions both supporting and opposing the lecturers’ strike which had been proposed by the Marginalised Genders Officer and NUSU President.

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AUTHOR: Grace Dean
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier 2019/20, News Editor 2018/19, writer since 2016 and German & Business graduate. I've written for all of our sections, but particularly enjoy writing breaking news and data-based investigative pieces. Best known in the office for making tea and blasting out James Blunt. Twitter: @graceldean

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