The University and College Union (UCU) has held a nationwide day of protests at universities. It’s over the ongoing dispute with bosses over pay and conditions, which has seen a nationwide marking boycott. The protests saw support from staff and students alike – and the UCU’s general secretary warned that if bosses don’t move, the union’s action would continue into the next academic year.
UCU: a protracted dispute with university bosses
As the Canary as been documenting, the UCU has been on dispute mode for well over a year. At first, it was over pay, conditions, and pensions – resulting in nationwide strikes. The union and the organisation responsible for pensions came to an agreement in April. However, members voted to reject the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) pay offer of derisory and imposed increases of between 5-8%.
So, UCU members began a marking boycott in April, known as action short of a strike. It’s been going on ever since. The union said on its website:
we are asking all UCU members in higher education institutions which are part of the pay and working conditions dispute to cease undertaking all summative marking and associated assessment activities/duties. The boycott also covers assessment-related work such as exam invigilation and the processing of marks.
Strikes, however, have been off the cards. UCU negotiations with the UCEA have proven unfruitful. As the union said:
UCU previously met with UCEA last week in an attempt to end the UK-wide university marking boycott and resolve the ongoing pay and working conditions dispute. Unfortunately, UCEA refused to table an improved pay offer or provide any redress for members who have been hit with punitive pay deductions.
So, the UCU called an emergency nationwide demo on Wednesday 26 July, to show the strength of feeling across the workforce as well as from students:
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🚨EMERGENCY CAMPUS PROTESTS WEDNESDAY
📢Calling all staff & students
💪We need a show of strength ahead of crunch talks with university bosses
🤝Across the UK, campus unity has been uplifting
— UCU (@ucu) July 24, 2023
By all accounts, the protests were a success.
Demos across the UK
Across the UK, universities saw demos. Oxford was packed:
2️⃣ Clarendon Steps Take Overs 🏛️ These steps have been flooded by pickets, rallies , and marches. Its been the background for some of our most iconic moments and biggest turnouts✨ @UCEA1 & @RKJethwa you should come along sometime … or you could just #SettleTheDispute? pic.twitter.com/Q7yYncirV9
— Oxford UCU (@OxfordUCU) July 26, 2023
Brighton University has been at the centre of a separate, ongoing dispute over bosses’ plans for redundancies. You can read the Canary‘s coverage of that here. So, staff and students were out in force there, too:
— Brighton UCU (@BrightonUCU) July 26, 2023
Keele University also saw protests:
For @UCU day of action, we're sharing a retrospective of 5 years of industrial action. We never wanted it this way but unfortunately intransigent employers @KeeleUniversity & their overpaid wonks in @UCEA1 and @UniversitiesUK made it like this. #StillHere #SettleTheDispute pic.twitter.com/k2sdnNQcG6
— Keele UCU (@KeeleUCU) July 26, 2023
There was a big turnout at Nottingham:
UCEA, make serious credible moves that will settle the dispute. We were right about USS pensions. Acknowledge we are right about stopping pay degradation, closing of gender, race & disability pay gaps, reversing casualisation, reducing workload. #SettletheDispute @UCEA1 @ucu . pic.twitter.com/iho25bblMm
— University of Nottingham UCU branch (@UoNUCU) July 26, 2023
And York saw a demo too:
— York St John UCU (@UCU_YSJ) July 26, 2023
Crucially, though, and students also supported the UCU’s action. The National Union of Students (NUS) officially backed the protests – while branches came out at individual universities, like University College London (UCL):
We do support you! @UCL_UCU
— UCL Students for UCU (@uclsolidarity) July 26, 2023
Some students had previously even used their graduation speeches to send support to the UCU – despite them not actually getting their grades. One student said:
It would not be right to stand here and not acknowledge the hard work of staff, who have been fighting for no more than the bare minimum, fair treatment, and fair pay.
This is so powerful.
Students are finishing university with TBC instead of grades and staff are still receiving punitive salary deductions.
The bosses could have ended this dispute well before graduations.
— UCU (@ucu) July 12, 2023
Back to the table – but to what end?
The day of action came before the UCU re-entered negotiations with the UCEA. The union’s general secretary Jo Grady said:
We cannot and will not allow employers to filibuster talks to a point where students miss out on their degrees and punitive pay deductions plunge staff further into debt.
UCEA now has a choice, listen to the modest demands of staff and students, and work with us to end the marking boycott, or lay the ground for even more disruption in the coming months and into the next academic year.
The challenge for the UCU is two-fold.
Firstly, and while a marking boycott is effective, to university bosses it represents nowhere near the same level of disruption as strikes. Do they really care if students have to wait for their final grades? Probably not.
Then there’s the issue of pay. The government’s acceptance of pay rises of between 5-7% for public sector workers doesn’t help the UCU – given the UCEA was offering between 5-8%. So it remains to be seen how far bosses will move. Therefore, the UCU is likely to have some difficult decisions to make – accept a lower pay offer, or continue the dispute. What it does next will shape the next academic year across higher education in the UK.
Featured image via Brighton UCUSupport us and go ad-free
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