By Education Correspondent Sally Weale
The entire UK higher education sector could be brought to “a complete standstill” before Christmas after university staff voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action in two national ballots over pay, working conditions and pensions.
More than 70,000 staff at 150 universities could now strike, after turnout among members of the University and College Union (UCU) exceeded the 50% voting threshold in both ballots and more than eight in 10 of those who voted said yes to strike action.
The UCU said it was a “stunning” victory and called on vice-chancellors to urgently get round the negotiating table and improve their offers if they want to avoid widespread disruption on campuses across the country, either this year or early next.
Monday’s historic result means the UCU is the only union in the education sector to secure a national mandate for industrial action since restrictive trade union legislation came into force in 2016. Other teaching unions are also balloting on strike action, raising the prospect of school and college closures this winter as well as universities.
In the UCU’s pay and working conditions ballot, the vote for strike action was 81.1% and turnout was 57.8%. In the pension ballot, the yes vote was 84.9%, with 60.2% turnout. Staff also overwhelmingly voted yes for action short of a strike in both ballots. The UCU’s higher education committee will meet on 3 November to decide the next steps.
The UCU said the result was evidence of the anger felt by university staffs that were offered a 3% pay rise against a backdrop of soaring inflation. Also of concern is the fact that a third of academic staffs are on temporary contracts. In the pension ballot, the UCU is calling on employers to revoke the 35% cut they made to the guaranteed retirement income of the average member this year.
“Today history has been made by our members in universities, who in huge numbers have delivered an unprecedented mandate for strike action,” said the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady. “The vice-chancellors who run universities have repeatedly and in a coordinated fashion come after our members. Well, now it’s 150 bosses against 70,000 university workers, who are ready and willing to bring the entire sector to a standstill if serious negotiations don’t start very soon.”
Though this is their first national mandate for strike action, UCU members have been engaged in several rounds of industrial action in recent years, causing repeated disruption to students, who have nevertheless been widely supportive of the action.
A spokesperson for the higher education regulatory body in England, the Office for Students, said: “We are very concerned about the potential impact of these strikes on students. It cannot be right that students face further disruption to their studies, and we would urge the employers and trade unions to work quickly so that any industrial dispute does not materially affect students.”
Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: “While threatening industrial action will not create new money for the sector, UCEA and its member HE institutions want to work with UCU and other trade unions to support staff and students and to avoid disruptive industrial action. However, there needs to be a realistic assessment of what is possible.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK, on behalf of employers locked in dispute over the universities superannuation scheme, the pension scheme for academics, added: “Universities will put in place a series of measures to minimize the impact of any industrial action on students, other staff and the wider community.
Immediate past vice chancellor, First Technical University, Ibadan, Oyo State, Prof Ayobami Salami; former commissioner, Dr. Kayode Afolabi and entrepreneur, Godwin Okorie, have urged young people to have a positive mindset and be hard working to achieve their future dreams. They made the call at the 40th anniversary of Lagelu Grammar School Old Boys Association (LAGSOBA), 1977-1982 set, held at Ayo Labiyi School Hall of the school.
Salami enjoined youths to use the opportunity of being in school to actualize their dreams. In his presentation titled: “Jobs of the future,” Salami said what they would become in future starts from now. Speaking on the topic, “Developing entrepreneurial skills,” Okorie, an old student of the school, urged students to develop a positive mindset such that will help them achieve success. “It is important for you to develop a positive mindset to become successful entrepreneurs. You also need to change ahead of time so as not to become victims of circumstance,” Okorie said.
On his part, Afolabi, who is the National President of the association, said there is need for students to develop a mindset that would make them see opportunities in every situation around them. In his lecture titled: “Discovering your innate values, interest, skills and mindset,” Afolabi said inability of young people to see opportunities has put them behind in the race of life.
The former commissioner urged students to place value on what they do and how they approach issues around them. While thanking the school management for their cooperation, he appealed to the students to learn the art of teamwork from now, stressing that hard work on their part from this time will instill value and confidence in them as they grow up. Highlight of the occasion was presentation of school uniforms and notebooks to the principal as donation to indigent students.