Dr Peter Matthews UCU Stirling Branch President (right) and Vice President Melanie Lovatt (left). Image credit: Isla Glen/Brig Newspaper
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Stirling UCU Branch President explains why university staff may strike

12 mins read

More than 70,000 staff at 150 UK universities may go on strike as University and College Union (UCU) members voted in favour of action.

UCU members – including nearly 400 at the University of Stirling – were asked to vote in two ballots over pay, working conditions and pensions.

The pay and working conditions ballot saw 57.8 per cent turnout and an 81.1 per cent vote in favour of strike action.

The pension ballot received 60.2 per cent turnout and a yes vote of 84.9 per cent.

The result has been deemed “historic” as it is the first to secure a national mandate for industrial action since restrictive trade union legislation came into force in 2016.

The UCU’s higher education committee will meet on November 3 to decide the next steps.

Here’s what the University of Stirling UCU branch had to say during the ballot.

Why are UCU members being balloted?

Dr Peter Matthews, a senior lecturer in Social Policy and the UCU Stirling Branch President, said:

“We don’t want to be on strike. The dispute is around mainly about pay because actually we’ve not had a pay increase for over a decade and also pensions.

“So, the USS – University Superannuation Scheme – pension benefits have been cut and what we expected to contribute has gone up because an evaluation was done in March 2020 when global financial markets had crashed and now the pension scheme is in very, very good health so we want our pension benefits restored.”

Dr Peter Matthews.
Image credit: University of Stirling

“But what’s happened is the employers that are represented by Universities UK and an organisation called UCEA – Universities and Colleges Employers Association – they’re on that side of the negotiations and we were in negotiations with them until this summer.

“Basically, they just walked away from the table. So, they refused to reopen negotiations on the pension scheme and they gave us a 3 per cent pay increase – which is way below inflation even when it was agreed – and walked away from those negotiations.

“So, what we’re doing now is we’re having a national ballot for strike action and what the aim of that is to show how angry we all are that we’re still being treated so poorly by our employers and that we want that to be a wake up call to our employers to come back to negotiating table and negotiate seriously with us.”

The UCU is also demanding that employers reverse the 35 per cent cut they made to the guaranteed retirement income of the average member this year.

Can students show support?

If students want to show support, Stirling UCU Vice President Melanie Lovatt said: “If there is strike action join us on the picket line. There’s a student solidarity organisation who have been really helpful in supporting us.

“Something that I think university managements across the UK often do is to pit students and staff against each other. And when there’s industrial disputes, implying that staff don’t care about students, they’re damaging their education, they’re damaging the student experience however we define that.

Students supporting UCU strikes outside the Cottrell Building in February 2022.
Image credit: Freya Deyell

“Staff are really keen to say this is something that is in all of our best interests to work together on. The staff who take part in industrial disputes go out on strike picket lines, care deeply about students.

“Actually, the worst way of having a student experience is to worsen staff benefits so that they leave the profession. It’s difficult to recruit to positions, which is what universities are finding at the moment.

“So, students can help by understanding. Reading the pamphlets, the posters that we put up around the university. Learn about what the issues are and why we are in dispute with our employers.”

“Your learning is the most important thing to us”

Matthews added: “The university puts students in the role of consumers and tries to engage with you on that basis. I think students can use that power a lot.

“So, like for example, Melanie mentioned the university is struggling to recruit staff at the moment because our pay and pensions are so poor.

“I think students have probably bumped into a lot of administrative problems at the start of semester and that directly relates to the fact that we have unfilled posts.

“The university advertises for posts in professional services, and they get no applicants to those because our pay compared to Stirling council, compared to the colleges, is so poor.

“So actually, students want to help us. You can respond to these problems by saying, telling the university you need to pay your staff more to solve these problems

“I’d like to say to students that we don’t want to cause disruption to your learning. Your learning is the most important thing to us and we only resort to strike action as a last resort. That really is the case this time.

“We are balloting for strike action because we want to force the employers back to the negotiating table. Employers walked away from the negotiating table when we were prepared to carry on negotiating. So, this is all on the employer’s side.

“And so, if we do end up striking – I really hope we don’t – that’s not our fault. That’s not us wanting to damage your learning. That’s because the employers will not negotiate with us and won’t give us a proper pay rise which will cover the cost of living at the moment.”

How are others coping with the cost of living crisis?

While the UCU covers senior university staff, such as academic, IT and economic employees, UNISON and Unite cover other workers.

UNISON launched the Together We Rise campaign and 80,000 people signed a petition calling on former Prime Minister Liz Truss to prioritise pay rises over tax cuts.

Unite is demanding decent pay, benefits and pensions. They state that the government must do more, from cancelling the cut to universal credit to making those who have profited from the energy crisis and Covid pandemic pay it back.

Matthews said: “UNISON cover the lower paid staff and they tell us that their members are coming to them saying ‘we can’t afford to live on the wages the university pay anymore’.

“The university can’t recruit into those posts because people join the university and then go off and get another job that is better paid somewhere else. So, that’s how serious the situation is now for the university.

“I’d like to say to the university – I do say this to the university – to use your membership of UCEA to encourage UCEA back to the negotiating table with UCU so that we can resolve this.

“It’s very telling that the University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde budgeted for bigger pay increases than the 3 per cent we got and they’re actually giving their staff a flat cash payment to increase their pay for this year.

The University of Glasgow budgeted for an extra 3 per cent, on top of the national settlement and the University of Strathclyde announced pro-rata payments, as well as a new Voluntary Living Wage rate of £10.90 per hour from October.

What does the University of Stirling say?

A spokesperson for the University of Stirling said: “The University of Stirling is proud of its reputation as an excellent employer, with staff benefitting from competitive salaries, an attractive pension scheme, and a generous annual leave entitlement, among other employee benefits.

“The 2022-23 national pay negotiations between UCU and UCEA have concluded and the University implemented the final offer with effect from 1 August 2022. This included an uplift of up to 9 per cent for those on the lowest points of the pay spine, with a minimum uplift of 3 per cent for all staff.

“The national reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) were necessary to ensure affordability for both staff and employers, and ultimately the scheme’s long-term viability. The USS remains one of the best pensions schemes in the country.”

The University of Stirling entrance.
Image credit: Harry Williamson/Brig Newspaper

“While many sectors across the UK are experiencing a challenging jobs market, Stirling continues to be a destination of choice for study and work and we have been investing in additional academic and professional services posts to support delivery of our high quality teaching and learning.

“In all of our discussions with the trades unions, we remain consistent that our priority remains minimising the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning and teaching.”

UCEA has been approached for comment.

Featured Image Credit: Isla Glen/Brig Newspaper

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Editor-in-Chief of Brig Newspaper. Final year film, media and journalism student.

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