This year has seen the largest strikes in Higher Education in a generation, with tens of thousands of academic and non-academic staff striking for 14 days across 64 Universities over proposed changes to their pensions from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme. In other words, the proposal by the employers was to move from a guaranteed deferred payment of wages in old age, to a guaranteed contribution into a pot with which managers of the fund would gamble on the market, while staff kept their fingers crossed for a good outcome.

After months of talks the negotiations broke down and the union balloted its members. The ballot returned a 93% vote in favour of the strike with a 58% turnout. Not only was this an exceptionally clear mandate for action, it was also the first national ballot of its kind to beat the newly imposed 50% participation threshold by the new Tory anti-trade union legislation.

Over 42,000 staff members struck, affecting around 575,000 teaching hours and over a million students. The action remained solid over the 14 days spread over 4 weeks: two strike days the first week, three the second, four the third, and five the fourth. It forced the employers back to the negotiating table despite their initial refusal to do so, and managed to momentarily force the new guaranteed contribution scheme off the table. It is also worth mentioning that the UCU recruited 16,000 new members in the process, demonstrating once more - for the people at the back - that the most effective way for unions to mobilise is to take action for better pay and conditions for their members.

However, all was not well. While demonstrating an impressive and militant commitment by the union’s membership throughout, the strike also shone a light on longer term structural problems within the union. Indeed, it became clear as the strike progressed that rank and file members had no mechanism to control their own strike at a national level, hold negotiators accountable, or influence the overall strategy of the union.

Once they had voted, they were expected to sit back, hold the picket lines, and wait for the leadership to give them instructions without the possibility of responding. This process came to a head when, during the third week of the strike, the union leadership attempted to call off the strike despite having made little-to-no progress. Only a revolt by the membership and a mass picket of the union offices managed to keep the strike on track.

In addition, the gap between the leadership and the active membership of the union was similarly exposed in the way the strike was called off, the deal was agreed, and how the union bureaucracy has operated since. Many of the most active members in the union - those who organised pickets, teach-outs, and demonstrations, who spent hours arguing with colleagues, students, and managers, and without whom there would have been no strike - were left with a bitter taste in their mouths as the union finally settled for a draw (agreeing to a new round of - secret - negotiations with the employers and a new valuation of the pension fund, without guarantees, before a final decision is reached in 2019), while a full victory appeared in hands reach.

The point of this article is then to reflect on the process, record some of its details, and point - hopefully - to some of the lessons that emerged out of the strike for those who are committed to rebuilding a vibrant, grassroots, trade union culture both in higher education and beyond. It also aims to give some necessary longer-term background to this new emergence of struggle.

The article is written by two casualised members of academic staff who took an active role in the strikes in their local branches, helped publish national bulletins throughout, and organised against the attempted sellouts by the leadership. We hope that our experiences and reflections can help spark further discussions, reflections, and strategising as we prepare for a new year of struggles in the sector.

Where did the dispute come from?

In order to understand the current dispute, it is first necessary to reflect on how we came to the strikes in 2018. Like many disputes, this had long roots.

The union traces its own roots back to 1904, but during this time there was a key moment that shaped the organisation. There were two different unions that covered lecturers in the UK, one which became the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and focused mainly on Further Education colleges. The other, the Association of University Teachers, as the name suggests, focused on universities. The AUT was, as again the name suggests, more of a professional association.

The AUT and NATFHE coordinated a campaign of industrial action from 2004 over pay, with a demand for 20%. This involved strikes and exam boycotts, eventually settling for 13.1% phased over three years in 2006. This would be the last above inflation pay rise in higher education to date.

Through these disputes, a long running discussion about merging AUT and NATFHE was picked up again. The general secretary of AUT, Sally Hunt, proposed the merger, and after a successful vote of both memberships, the two unions joined into the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). In the final part of the last conference of NATFHE, the membership voted to boycott Israeli academics who did not speak out against their government. This was met with criticism, particularly from AUT. This is one example of the more radical practices and policies of NATFHE, something that was not continued in UCU.

Sally Hunt, after being the General Secretary of AUT, was elected as the first General Secretary of UCU. Although she has been re-elected twice, there has never been a turnout of over 13.9%. Hunt is a career bureaucrat, as she explains in her own words:

I don’t pretend to be an academic. I never have been. But I’m somebody who understands exactly how much I’ve benefited from what good academics were able to give me and that’s something I think is reflected in my work. I understand what good higher education meant for me and that only happened because of the people I represent. I wouldn’t expect them to have to go and do a negotiation. Equally, I think they don’t need me to be running seminars.1

This explanation highlights one of the major problems with UCU: a clear division of labour between workers and organisers. This quote comes from the time of the merger, and history has not been kind to her assertion that the “professionals” should be left to do the negotiations. It also shows how far removed the leadership are from the conditions and experiences of the workers they claim to represent.

Changes in academic work

Since 2006 there have been huge changes in higher education. Most importantly, we have witnessed a shift towards a growing fee regime. This has accelerated changes in the relationship between universities and the state, private companies, university workers, as well as between staff and students.

Indeed, in 2006 fees - for home and EU students - were raised to £3000/year. This number was then tripled again in 2010 to reach a staggering £9000/year. The cost for international students went through the roof, with the cap on their fees being lifted entirely. At the same time, the government block grants to universities were cut, especially for non-STEM subjects,2 leaving universities increasingly dependent on student fees - and therefore greater recruitment of students and international students in particular - for funding.

These changes initiated a new regime in the sector, with universities adopting new managerial models based on increasing student recruitment. This was triggered by the removal of the cap on numbers of students, including overseas. Universities invested in publicity and new buildings, while cutting costs through casualisation of staff, outsourcing, and redundancies. Small, specialist courses were increasingly shut in favour of large, auditorium-filling programs. All the while, management salaries and numbers were skyrocketing in order to compete with the private sector. Private providers increasingly entered the scene either through running sections of universities or setting up new ones altogether, such as the New College of the Humanities in London. Whereas the rise in fees was sold by the government as an opportunity to improve teaching across the sector, the overall teaching budget in England has shrunk, while the advertising budget has soared.

It is striking that, at the time of these changes, the union, while opposing them rhetorically, did not seem to understand the significance of the changes that were afoot. Neither was any action taken to stop what was to be an effective assault on the very material basis of its members’ pay and conditions. While students marched, occupied, stormed the Tory party HQ, and brought universities and colleges into a direct confrontation with the government in 2010, the UCU’s response was anything but adequate.

The union leadership gave nominal support without attempting to mobilise its base. The left inside the UCU attended demonstrations and rallies in solidarity, without ever seriously attempting to convince staff members to take action as well. The struggle was understood to be a student matter, and did not spill over into serious industrial action. Those students and staff members who argued for it at the rank-and-file level were left unheard. This strategic short-sightedness characterised much of the union’s work in this period, as will be discussed below.

The new fees regime also started to affect relations between staff and students. Education was increasingly sold to students as a commodity, an investment in the future - and an extremely expensive one at that, with HE students in England taking out an average debt of around £50,000 in order to complete a three-year Bachelor’s degree. Unsurprisingly, students started treating it as such.

Staff members became ‘service providers’ rather than educators. They were there to please, rather than to challenge and stimulate students. This dynamic played itself out during the strike, where a significant number of students opposed the strike on the ground that they had paid for an education that they were now not receiving in full. However, this was also a double-edged sword: it allowed students to increase pressure on university managers by demanding that their fees be reimbursed because of the strike. Over 125,000 of them did so during the last round of strikes.

This new regime in higher education, as well as the nature of the sector, can make striking difficult. As many union members like to repeat, “we are neither car workers or miners.” Closing down the university is not simply shutting down a production line, it is also shutting down students’ access to education. If this can be used as an excuse by colleagues who are not - for a different set of ideological or material reasons - keen on taking industrial action, it also describes a reality which touches upon the emotional connection and personal commitment of staff towards students. This connection is also regularly mobilised by managers who try to avoid the substance of the issue at hand and mobilise students’ well-being instead. This specific relation is further complicated by the monetisation of education, described above, which encourages students to similarly leverage the educators’ duties as ‘service providers’.

In addition, the nature of academic work, especially when casualised (which is the case of over 30% of all academic staff in HE), is often individualised. It is spent in personal research, or even in competition with colleagues in the same department. The separation between paid work and personal time is often only vague demarcated. Academics can easily take their work home. In fact, it might be easier in some cases to get work done at home rather than in their place of work.

In these circumstances, industrial action can at times be made difficult by both the ability of many to not come into work while still performing their duties. There is also the tendency for problems to appear to many as individual and isolated experiences of hardship or injustice, rather than structural workplace issues. There is a reticence of many academics, especially in the higher echelons of the profession, to consider themselves as workers. This failure to see themselves as part of a workforce, as well as broader class of wage labourers, can at times undermine their commitment to trade unions and industrial action.

Finally, it is also important to bear in mind that the nature of academic work also tends to focus academic staff on the expertise and technical information relating to their employment conditions, rather than the political work of building trade union power. This is an understandable ‘professional deformation’, but it can harm the effectiveness of industrial action when the two become counterpoised, as it did this year.

Post-2006 factional set up

The leadership of the UCU is split between two opposing factions: the Independent Broad Left (IBL) and UCU Left. The IBL (as the saying goes) is neither “independent”, “broad”, nor “left.” It is composed of Stalinists (without a party) and Blairites (fortunately increasingly without a party too). The IBL is essentially the faction around Sally Hunt, the general secretary. It dominates the apparatus of the union.

This being said, it is also worth noting that Hunt is, in fact, not officially affiliated to the IBL. She is able, at times, to play the different factions of the union against one another. For example, during the last round of strike action, Hunt used UCU Left against the IBL in order to get the strikes called and organised. When she needed to re-establish control over an increasingly militant base (see below) she sided with the IBL against the UCU Left.

UCU Left is the official opposition to both within the union, mainly focussed on contesting elections and attempting to wrestle the leadership of the union out of the IBL’s hands. It is made up of an alliance between left Labour party members, independents, and the Socialist Workers’ Party - with the latter playing a dominant role inside it.

The current composition of the National Executive Council (NEC) for Higher Education appears to be: 30 IBL, 24 UCU Left, and four independents (or at least not visibly aligned). These numbers are estimates based on the endorsements received by NEC members from either faction, rather than active membership, as there is no official record of NEC members’ affiliation. It is therefore likely that the blocks are slightly more fluid, which further highlights the General Secretary’s ability to play the different blocks off against one another.

Review of previous strikes

Since 2006, the industrial battles inside universities over the implementation of the new regime (as described above) have continued unabated through both national and local actions. These have taken the form, at the national level, of repeated confrontations over pay and pensions. At a local level, industrial action has involved a wider number of issues such as outsourcing, casualization, course closures and redundancies. It is noticeable that, given that the origin of all these problems are located in the government-led restructuring of HE, under both Labour and Tory governments, there has been a total absence of a national political campaign headed by the UCU (or otherwise) over the shape, funding, and social role of university education in the UK.

It would be too long to give a detailed account of every national wave of industrial action and disputes led by UCU since 2006. However, it is nonetheless important to account for some of them, their outcomes, and the tactics mobilised by the union, in order to make sense of the strength of feeling demonstrated by staff in the latest round of strikes. It is also important to note that this picture will necessarily be focussed on the pre-92 universities. A full picture of the union’s work in post-92 and further education institutions would be helpful in the future. (Spoiler alert: the picture is considerably bleaker still in those sectors).

Overall, the UCU strategy during the period from 2006 until today can be characterised by a defensive and economist approach, which has failed to act on key issues. This is particularly true for new entrants into the profession or “peripheral staff”, such as the gender and race pay gaps, casualization, and outsourcing. The campaigns have avoided taking on the wider political framework in which the employers’ assault on pay and conditions has taken place. The union’s approach has been one of attempting to shield its so-called “core” (of long-standing members) from the worst of the assault, while allowing the rest of the sector to deteriorate. This has been justified by arguing the impossibility of leading offensive action in a period of austerity, cuts, and reorganisation of the sector. Unsurprisingly, this approach has not been a successful one.

As discussed earlier, the UCU was born in 2006 out of a merger. On the day of its inception, members of both predecessor unions took part in a national day of action within the framework of ongoing Action Short of a Strike (ASOS) over pay. The union demanded a 20% pay rise to catch up with inflation and settled for 13.1% phased over three years. This would be the last serious victory for the UCU.

After the 2010 defeat over fees, the reforms within the sector accelerated and the employers started to batten down the hatches. In 2011, a dispute which led to further strikes on pensions was settled in an effective defeat for the union. Pension contributions were raised from 6.25 to 7.5%, access age was raised from 60 to 65. Worst of all the USS scheme was split between old members and new entrants, leaving all those joining USS after 2011 with worse conditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after a further dispute in 2015, USS moved to equalise the two schemes and raised all employee contributions upwards to 8%.

Similarly, over pay, the union took strike action during both 2013-2014 and 2016, pointing out that pay rises were consistently below inflation and therefore constituted pay cuts. The first time the union took action alongside Unison and Unite, the second time alone, it settled twice for an increase of between 1 and 2%. This was despite staff members having suffered over 13% in effective pay cuts.

These results can at best be characterised as holding back the worst attempts by employers to undermine pay and conditions in the sector, and having kept the membership mobilised. However, when taking in the longer-term reality of the different disputes a more pessimistic picture emerges: a union managing its retreat, while the entirety of the sector gets turned upside down around it.

The tactics used by the UCU in this period further emphasise this picture. Indeed, staff were repeatedly called upon to take limited industrial action, either ASOS or performative one-day strikes, which can have no other function but to demonstrate the union’s muscle to the employers in order to strengthen the union’s negotiating position. However, they do not actually confront the employers. The infamous two-hour strikes in 2014 captured this approach most starkly. Staff members struck during lunch hours, without shutting down their institutions, effectively holding rallies while having their pay docked anyway.

These repeated “showcase” strikes and poor results created a growing sense of frustration and disempowerment amongst active members in the union, as well as a feeling that there were no possible alternatives to cuts and roll-backs. The absence of a national political campaign against the underlying causes of the changes strengthened this feeling further. It is in this general situation across pre-92 universities that this year’s strikes took place. It is this background that helps explain the strength of feeling amongst staff members and the radicalism of the picketers. It also contextualises and helps to explain the behaviour of the union, the general secretary, and her paid staff.

What happened next?

So far in this piece we have laid the background to the USS pension strikes in 2018. In this final section we want to introduce what happened during the dispute, linking to each of the issues of The University Worker, a rank-and-file bulletin that we, along with others, helped to produce during the strike.

The strikes began in February of 2018 across 61 universities. The union called a series of strike days, escalating in length over four weeks. It started with two days from February 22-23rd, then February 26-28th, March 5-8th, and March 12-16th. The first issue of The University Worker called for strong picket lines across the country. Additionally, Jamie published Six points on the eve of the UCU strike, putting an argument about how we could win the dispute. Given the history that we have discussed above, many were concerned about how the strikes would go, with some convinced the leadership would fold before getting to the second week.

The second issue was published on the day before the second week of strikes. It featured reports from picket lines across the country, reporting on how the first week had gone - something the national union had not done. The picket lines and rallies were a success, bringing UUK (Universities UK, the employers association) to the negotiating table on the 27th. UCU called a demonstration in central London on the 28th, with at least five thousand academic workers marching in the snow. The spirit of other campus strikes organised by UVW and IWGB could be felt on the picket lines. Despite the snow, they were lively and excited. At Senate House in London, IWGB members joined the picket lines too.

On the 4th of March (again the day before the next wave of strikes), the third issue was published. The strikes continued while UCU leadership negotiated with UUK. An open letter was published with members calling for the strikes to continue, and motions were passed at branches too.

At the start of the fourth week of strikes, issue four was published, suggesting that “victory was in sight.” A series of vice-chancellors broke from the official UUK position. There was talk of another wave of strike action, as well as the controversial exam boycotts. A day later on March 13th, a special issue was published. This called for a rejection of the deal agreed by UCU and UUK at ACAS3, labelling it a sell-out. The “deal” involved keeping a defined benefit scheme, but paying more into it, while exploring other options with the employer - like giving up the defined benefit. It required an immediate end to the strike and rescheduling of classes without pay. So effectively giving up, losing pay, and still doing the work!

The deal was so bad that at some point a conspiracy theory went around that the union leadership must only have accepted it to send a secret message to members. Somehow this was meant to show up how bad UUK was. The theory was mainly popular with a more conservative section of the membership, who could not seem to believe why the bureaucracy would consider a deal like this. However, for others this was a sign of the behaviour of the UCU leadership in many previous disputes.

We started a petition to reject the deal, which gathered over 10,000 signatures. 50 out of 64 branches (three more had joined the dispute part way through) voted to reject the deal. A demonstration was called outside the UCU headquarters in London. The demonstrators demanded that a UCU spokesperson address the crowd, which was flatly refused. What followed was a short occupation of the lobby, ended when paid union officials threatened to call the police to disperse the demonstration. In another moment, younger members tapped pound coins on the windows to show their frustration at the inaccessible vote on their future taking place inside. An angry union official confronted them, warning them not to damage union property.

The following day, March 14th, another special issue was published. The proposed deal had been rejected. UCU had been forced into changing their position.

The final week of strikes ended on March 16th, with academic workers having gained significant confidence through confrontations with both the UUK and the union. Jamie published a short reflection on the dispute, arguing for a renewed set of strikes and action after the Easter break.

The momentum of the strike had been punctured by the Easter break. A new deal appeared from UCU. We published a response to the deal, warning that moving the dispute from striking to the so-called “joint expert panel” was a mistake. This proposed to end the strike action, putting the power instead into the hands of a panel composed half from the UCU and half from UUK. We called to reject the deal.

The fifth issue addressed the deal again on April 5th as it went to online ballot. We called to reject the deal and vote no. There were a series of discrepancies with the voting process, with many lost ballots. Before voting, members had to read a long piece of text from Sally Hunt, imploring member to vote yes. The alternative was, she claimed, “sustained industrial action.”

Jamie then wrote a short piece reflecting on the end of the dispute. The vote was lost, with members accepting the deal. However, there were still 12,230 people (36%) who voted no. Instead of continuing to fight collectively, the fight over pensions is now entrusted to a small group of experts. As we have noted before, the reliance on so-called “experts” is a long-running problem within the sector and the union. However, strike action continued at the University of London, with IWGB leading a strike of outsourced workers. A number of rank-and-file initiatives briefly flourished, with the energy of the strikes harder to suppress than the campaign itself. There is a joint conference organised by a series of these initiatives for October.

The next part of the story took place at UCU national congress, which was covered in a report by Sai. Sally Hunt took the stage as usual, but this time was met with hostility from the congress floor. In a bizarre turn of events, the proposal of two motions - one a vote of no confidence and the other a censure of Sally Hunt - caused a major conflict.

The leadership and staff of the union, who are members of another trade union Unite, threatened to walk out over the motions. They claimed that these motions touched on employment issues (apparently they threatened the conditions of a precarious worker, Sally Hunt - while it is good that they finally cared about casualisation, they seemed to completely misunderstand what it means). The staff union staged numerous walkouts, essentially shutting down the national democratic body of the UCU. As Sai argued: “these were union bosses and their employees blocking the democratic running of a conference rather than allowing debate and criticism of their behaviour to take place.” This has led to calls for serious push to democratise the union.

The USS pension dispute is now in a state of limbo until the “joint expert panel” reports back. It is not clear how members will be able - if at all - to influence the proceedings of the panel, especially given its members (including UCU) have agreed to not disclose the content of their negotiations to the membership.

What emerges from these weeks of action and their aftermath is an image of a longer term, and more fundamental, confrontation between a membership that is increasingly ready to take action - under the pressure of casualisation, growing gender and race pay gaps, and worsening pay and conditions - and a leadership who finds it increasingly difficult to continue to run the union from the top. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the leadership’s historic base - the core of the union, those with still acceptable benefits in the sector - is shrinking rapidly, through both retirement and further offensives by the employers. In this context, the question of democracy, of who runs the union and how, and of accountability of leaders will continue to shape much of the political life of the UCU. In addition, in this process the balance sheet of the current leadership will increasingly be scrutinised by members, who will be confronted with the poor results of the present strategy. We should therefore expect greater calls for more sustained action, more militant tactics, and far greater democratic oversight by the membership in the months and years to come.

In the meantime we are now preparing for a ballot over a national pay claim of 7.5%. This will include all universities, rather than just the pre-92s. The turn out to the consultative ballot, nearing 50% of the membership despite little effort from the UCU centrally to get members involved, is a powerful indicator of the ongoing engagement, frustration with continuing effective pay cuts, and readiness to take industrial action.

The voting will start on August 30th. We look forward to a new term of strikes, in which the lessons of last year can be applied by a more experienced and mobilised membership, but - when reflecting on last years’ missed opportunity, we still look back in anger.

For further details on what happened during the dispute, all the back issues of The University Worker and other articles can be found on the Higher Education tag. In addition, there is also a podcast on the making of the bulletin.

  1. Sally Hunt: A little less conversation

  2. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. 

  3. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. 


Sai Englert

Sai Englert is a researcher.

Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.