University and College Union Strike – What’s fair for Staff and Students?

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) are undertaking industrial action across 61 universities in the UK in February and March including Bristol. The strike involves 14 days total of strike action spanning across four weeks starting on the 22 and 23rd of February.


The Strike dates are as followed:

Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)

Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)

Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)

Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)


Teaching staffs are striking in response to a decision proposed by Universities UK to scrap part of the pension scheme that ensured members a fixed level of income in retirement. The decision will mean an end to guaranteed pension benefits, which could see lectures lose out on an estimated £10,000 in retirement with some figures showing a total loss of roughly £200,000.


The Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) is the legal forum for deciding any changes to the pension scheme, the aptly named University Superannuation Scheme (USS). The committee has members from both sides of the debate -University UK and the UCU - and on the 23rd of January Sir Andrew Cubie, the Chair of the USS Board, used his casting vote to push ‘Defined Contribution’ onto all members of the USS after UUK and UCU representatives failed to come to an agreement in the JNC. The result means that the USS’s final pension plans will depend on how investments perform rather than on member’s contributions. The UCU rebuttal to this is saying its equivalent to the USS betting lecturers pension schemes on the stock market.


It is important to remember the strike is not a rushed decision. The JCU talks have been on going for months and the UCU did propose an alternative scheme in an effort to stop industrial action. That scheme would have had lower accrual rates and would manage to keep the ‘defined benefit’ element of the USS’s current scheme – but it was rejected. As such 88% of UCU members voted to support strike action, they say – “They don’t want to strike, they want to teach their students” but without the support of a pension fund many staff will simply leave. The UCU is now calling for the involvement of the governments arbitration service ACAS to bring the two sides together for negations before the strike dates happen.


The University of Bristol is taking part in the strikes, confirmed by an email from Professor Judith Squires the Pro Vice-Chancellor on Monday evening. She points out that the university doesn’t know exactly who will be affected as staff are under no legal obligation to tell them whether they are taking part in the strike but that the university will do everything possible to minimize disruption. The email also states that the university is supporting the right of its hardworking staff to make sure their voices are heard – as it should. No one is denying the hard work of the staff and their reason for striking is justified, but where does it leave the students? I know many a lecturer that will go above and beyond to minimize the affect of the strike on teaching but undoubtedly some tutoring will be affected and cancelled.


Professor Squires also says, ‘Remember that it is your responsibility to keep up with your studies to the best of your ability’ in bold. A slightly unnecessary thing to point out to a student body that is doing everything they can to keep up their studies… even when faced with extensive strike action. It seems converse to say that it is our responsibility to keep up with our studies when the primary teaching will be affected. How can someone keep up to date on projects and assessments if teachers aren’t there?


Before this email there was a distinct lack of communication from Bristol University to its students about the strikes, with some faculties still yet to address their students. Vice- Chancellor Professor Hugh Brady – (who made headlines last year for receiving a reported pay package of £323,000 in the fiscal year 16/17) is yet to comment.


Many students are supporting the strikes and defending their lecturer’s choices but many are pointing out that we pay for an expensive service in coming to University and as with any other business if you do not receive the paid for and expected service a refund should be available. That should not be taken as a criticism of the lecturers partaking in the strike but at the University in failing to support both staff and students.


As a third year English literature student, I have, at most, 6 hours a week over 22 weeks for each year for which I pay £9000. That means that one-hour of teaching costs me £68. 18, (6 x 22 = 132 total contact hours a year, therefore 9000 ÷ 132 = 68.18). Over the proposed strike dates I will miss 18 hours total of contact time meaning I am out of pocket £1,227.24 (18 x 68.18), the equivalent of one-term’s worth of the standard maintenance loan. A ridiculously high figure it seems to lose out on. It would be pretty helpful to any student to have that amount reduced from debt or to have that money to help fund living.


Teachers undoubtedly have the right to strike for something that will affect their lives in retirement but surely students now have the right to ask for compensation for our loss of teaching time? Students with any project or dissertation that needs constant teaching support are now facing immeasurable levels of stress. I don’t want to take anything away from the UCU’s cause, indeed I support teachers right to strike but I am merely pointing out that the unfortunate consequence of such action is a loss of support to students who are trying hard to complete their degrees.


All facts and figures are taken from the UCU website and for further information go to the UCU website . Also have a look at this helpful fact sheet that records what the proposed changes mean to teaching staff - ‘What is wrong with the USS?’