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Critical period for UCU members

24 September 2023

The long running fight for university pensions. UCU members Glasgow, February 2022. Photo Workers.

After a period of effective action, members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) face difficult choices. Continuing action on pay and conditions in a complex situation will need a different direction in the face of employer resistance.

For many UCU members working in universities, their battle is for control, for universities that serve the needs of working people. They are fighting against employers for the public good and not the needs of capital.

But there is no shame for the national union leadership to offer branches the opportunity to pull back from long running industrial action. This is important for branches whose members are becoming tired and need to recoup their strength.


The UCU achieved a magnificent victory against years-long efforts by the government and university employers to destroy the group pension scheme. It is time for the union as a whole to re-group and think deeply about when and how to resume their pay and conditions fight.

Members are being urged to take part in the legally-required mandate renewal vote. A “yes” vote will put the union in a strong position and give it the flexibility to plan its next moves.


During the past year UCU members took successful strike action over several weeks to reinstate the pension. That was swiftly followed by a marking and assessment boycott over a five month period in pursuit of improved pay and conditions.

The boycott relied on members with high marking loads refusing to mark, having their pay docked as a result. They were financially supported by members on mainly research contracts or with low or no marking loads. The amount of pay docked was anything between 30 per cent and 100 per cent, depending on the nastiness of the particular university management.


Throughout that action members also maintained further pressure on employers with action short of a strike. They only worked the hours for which they were paid, rather than contributing the enormous amount of unpaid labour on which universities have come to depend.

As a result of these actions, employers were compelled to put a pay offer on the table and to deliver regular negotiations on non-pay elements. A year ago the Universities and Colleges Employers Association would not even meet the union. Nor would they countenance negotiating on anything but pay.


Employers were forced to increase their initial pay offer from 4 per cent to 5 per cent. But there has still been a 25 per cent pay cut since 2009. And casualisation, inequality and unmanageable workloads still blight the sector.

Other local victories on pay and conditions set precedents for universities elsewhere. For example UCU members at Kings College, London have achieved significant success.

A union meeting attended by 96 per cent of the Kings College membership accepted an offer which included an increase in London Weighting. From December 2023 it will be £5,000, up from £3,500 in 2021. And joint union-management working groups will address pay gaps, excessive workloads, and career progression including casualisation.

‘Employers have stuck together in refusing to increase the pay offer.’

This and similar local victories represent some success in forcing cracks in the national employers’ side. But the employers have stuck together in their refusal to go above their stated 5 per cent offer – laughable in the face of the real reduction of salaries over many years.

Universities have also refused to accept responsibility for casualisation, pay inequality and overwork. These are systemic and pernicious failings across the university system, which only can only be corrected by employer action.


Many UCU members and branches will be disappointed. The timing of the new mandate, assuming it is achieved, left a one month gap, forcing a break in the action. This stopped the marking boycott at the end of the last academic year instead of being carried over into this one.

These members consider there has been poor UCU leadership – particularly Jo Grady, the general secretary who is facing the possible threat of a no confidence vote.


The planned five days of strike action to fill the gap between the mandates did not go ahead in their entirety. But those days of action have proved useful in places.

Some branches are still fighting to get back the deductions they suffered. In many cases staff will still have to carry out the delayed marking and obviously expect to be paid for that! Elsewhere, action shows solidarity with other university workers just beginning their industrial action on pay and conditions.


The important thing is that the union lives to fight another day. Members will be refreshed and keen to resume the battle for higher education. The employers have demonstrated both a lack of regard for their staff and a lack of interest in whether students’ work is marked or not.

UCU members will need to recognise that their enemy is the university employers keen to grab students’ money and educate them on the cheap. They might not be capitalists themselves but they are doing the bidding of those who are, and like them, they are ruthless.