By Sally Hunt, General Secretary of University and College Union.
UK universities are set to be hit with unprecedented levels of strike action starting on Thursday 22
February. How have we got here and how do we resolve the dispute? University and College Union
general secretary Sally Hunt says students could still play vital role in stopping strikes, but
responsibility ultimately lies with university representatives.
It seems everyone is talking about the strikes due to start on 22 February at 61 UK universities.
Fourteen days of escalating strikes over four weeks and petitions calling for tuition fee refunds are
making newspaper front pages.
The dispute is between the University and College Union (who represent staff) and Universities UK
(who represent universities). The strikes are looking more likely by the day as UUK refuses to come
back round the table to talk to the union in an effort to resolve the dispute.
Things took a turn for the worse on Monday morning when, given the opportunity to talk about the
challenges universities face, UUK’s chief executive weirdly chose not to mention the strikes.
In a bizarre piece that also ignored the other huge scandal that universities have failed to deal with –
excessive salaries for vice-chancellors – UUK chose not acknowledge the strikes, or respond to the
many voices demanding they do something to avert them. Frankly it is insulting to students that our
leaders have come up so short.
The dispute is about hardline changes to staff pensions. UCU estimates that a typical lecturer would
lose around £10,000 a year in retirement under changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme
(USS) that UUK wants to bring in.
In negotiations UUK refused to budge from that position and, understandably furious at the
proposals, university staff voted in record numbers for strike action to defend their pensions.
We have reached the unlikely stage where some university vice-chancellors are even publicly
criticising UUK for the severity of the proposals and the refusal to negotiate with UCU. We hope
more vice-chancellors will speak out and those rational voices will finally start to be heard over at
But it is not just the odd vice-chancellor who has been offering UUK advice on how to avoid these
strikes. The National Union of Students issued a statement supporting UCU’s right to strike and
calling for both sides to get back round the table, using a mediator if necessary – something UCU is
very happy to do.
Last week the former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell MP pulled out of giving a lecture at
the University of Manchester as she said she would not cross a UCU picket line. In a statement
saying why she was cancelling her address she also called on UUK to get back round the table with
UCU and negotiate.
It is no wonder that people talk of a crisis of leadership in higher education. We are days away from
unprecedented strikes on UK campuses and the people with the gift to stop them are trying to
My message to students is a simple one. Thank you for support so far. Thank you for the messages
on social media and those to your individual staff – they really do mean so much. Please keep up the
pressure on your vice-chancellor or principal to do all they can to get UUK back to the table with us.
My message to UUK is even simpler: Listen. Listen to students; listen to university staff; listen to your vice-chancellors; listen to MPs. And start talking to us.