University staff across the UK are taking industrial action, with a marking boycott affecting 145 institutions. The action by members of the University and College Union (UCU) covers all marking and assessments, as well as exam invigilation or processing marks. The union says the boycott could affect graduations. There are two separate disputes with employers. One is about to pay and working conditions and the other is about pensions. Talks are continuing in the pensions dispute after members voted to move forward with employer proposals.

Lecturers, librarians, technicians, security staff and catering workers are among the tens of thousands of UCU members who went on strike on several days in February and March. The UCU says 70,000 staff have taken part in the strikes, and they have been “overwhelmed by the support of thousands of students” who have joined picket lines. Further dates could soon be announced now that UCU members have voted in favour of more strike action.

UCU members at 83 universities are striking over pay and working conditions, five have been striking over pensions and 62 have been striking over both issues. Unison members at 21 universities have taken part in strike action, and members at Arts University Bournemouth are striking on 25 April. Unite and EIS have also been on strike but do not have any further dates scheduled.

For most staff involved in industrial action, it is about pay and conditions. The unions have asked for a pay rise worth either the RPI measure of inflation +2%, or 12% – whichever is higher, and action to end the use of zero hours and temporary contracts. The unions said they were offered an improved pay deal for 2023-24 worth between 5% and 8% on 25 January, but this was a real-terms “pay cut”.

The UCEA says the January 2023 offer was the highest higher education pay offer made in nearly 20 years and was “a genuine attempt by employers to address cost-of-living pressures”. It says any increase in pay “puts jobs at risk”. Some 30% of universities are already in deficit. After a consultation, 56% of participating UCU members voted to reject the latest pay offer. Despite talks stalling, the UCEA has advised universities to implement the 2023-24 pay uplift, backdated to February. It said it is “fully committed to working with the trade unions”, but that further industrial action – such as the marking and assessment boycott – puts talks in jeopardy.

The separate dispute over pensions began more than a decade ago but was reignited by the revaluation of the pension scheme used by staff at institutions that have had university status since before 1992. The UCU says the revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was “flawed” because it took place at the start of the pandemic, “when global markets were crashing”, and recorded a deficit of £14.1bn. Changes were introduced which meant pension contributions increased and future benefits were reduced. UCU members have voted for further talks on fresh proposals to restore these benefits – but the union says it could still take further strike action if employers backtrack. Universities UK (UUK) says restoring benefits and helping to reduce employees’ contributions are two of its priorities.

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