UK university staff make breakthrough in strike dispute with employers

University staff have made a breakthrough in their months-long dispute with employers during which lecturers have gone on strike, worked to rule and refused to cover for absent colleagues across the UK.

A group of five higher education trade unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) announced agreement “on terms of reference for detailed negotiations covering a review of the UK higher education pay spine, workload, contract types and equality pay gaps”.

UCEA, representing 144 higher education employers, had last month made a pay offer of between 8% and 5% from August 2023 with a proportion of that to be paid from February, about six months in advance of the usual pay uplift date.

Both sides will consult with their members on the wider package. The University and College Union (UCU) said strikes planned for next week remained scheduled to continue “whilst members are asked whether they wish to stand down action to formally consider the offer”.

On Wednesday, 70,000 UCU members went ahead with another day of nationwide industrial action, with the London Underground also closing in a dispute over working conditions and pensions and schoolteachers across England striking over pay. BBC journalists also went on strike just after 11am for 24 hours in protest against proposed cuts to the broadcaster’s local radio output.

The UCU said the terms of reference “pave the way for the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension to be restored by August 2024, to end the use of involuntary zero-hours contracts in higher education, and to agree new standards, frameworks and principles to tackle other forms of casualised contracts, reduce workloads and close equality pay gaps”.

“Today, on our 10th day of strike action and after weeks of intensive negotiations, university employers have finally agreed to put forward a set of proposals on pay, conditions and pensions,” said the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady. “This breakthrough is down to the strength, determination and sacrifice of university workers who have stood on picket lines. The proposals will now move through our union’s democratic processes, and strike action will continue until our 70,000 UCU members have had the chance to have their say.”

The other unions involved are GMB, Unison, Unite and the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s chief executive, said: “We welcome this important progress following the constructive meetings and genuine determination from all parties to conclude the terms of reference for the priority issues of the pay spine restructuring, workload issues, contract types and pay gaps negotiations. Despite ongoing strike action attempts and further threats of disruption, employers have remained committed to these talks over essential terms of reference for key non-pay issues.”

University and college staff paused strike action last month to restart negotiations following talks at the conciliation service Acas, but after there was no initial resolution, UCU members at 150 UK universities went ahead with the first of six days of strikes that were due to run until 22 March.

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The deal came amid fresh hopes of a settlement of the separate pay dispute between schoolteachers and the government. The strikes on Wednesday were expected to disrupt schools across England into Thursday, but pay negotiations between teachers and the government could start in earnest as early as next week.

The National Education Union (NEU) was going ahead with its final planned two days of strikes in England, which will mean many pupils missing school or working from home, despite an offer by Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, to open talks if it called them off.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the NEU, told Times Radio: “We have suspended our strike action in Wales today and tomorrow because we had a new offer and we’re consulting members on it. It is Gillian Keegan who is out of step – she just won’t sit down and talk with us and make offers to resolve the dispute.”

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