Over a million students at dozens of UK universities, including many in Scotland, are set to be hit by strike action lasting up to ten days.

Staff plan to walk out in two disputes over pensions, pay and working conditions, the University and College Union (UCU) said.

It has described the move as a “fight for the future of higher education” and warned lecturers were at “breaking point”. Over 50,000 university staff are expected to take part.

UCU leaders said pension proposals from employers meant members would face a 35 per cent cut to their guaranteed retirement income. The pay and working conditions dispute relates to what they have claimed is a 20% real-terms pay cut over the past 12 years. They are also criticising “unmanageable workloads, pay inequality and the use of exploitative and insecure contracts”.

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However, employer representatives Universities UK (UUK) hit out at the latest development and said students would "struggle to understand why they should bear the brunt of UCU’s refusal to confront the financial challenges facing all pension schemes".

In total, 68 UK universities will be hit with strike action in February. The full strike dates, with numbers of institutions involved, are:

  • Week 1 (USS pension dispute only, 44 institutions): 5 days; Monday 14 to Friday, February 18;
  • Week 2 (both the pension and the pay & working conditions dispute, 68 institutions): 2 days; Monday 21 and Tuesday, February 22;
  • Week 3 (pay & working conditions dispute only, 63 institutions): 3 days; Monday, February 28, Tuesday 1 and Wednesday, March 2;

The final day of action in week three has been called to coincide with the student strike on Wednesday, March 2, which is organised by the NUS. The NUS wants higher and further education to be free at the point of use for students, and for staff to get better working conditions, pay and pensions.

The UCU said it had shared proposals that could avert the pension strike and is due to meet with UUK on February 11. To resolve the pension dispute, UCU is demanding employers revoke the cuts to staff pensions and formally accept its counter proposals. To resolve the pay and working conditions dispute, union bosses want a £2,500 pay increase for all staff, as well as action to tackle unmanageable workloads, pay inequality and the use of what they have branded “insecure and exploitative” contracts.

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In December 2021, staff at 58 universities took three days of strike action. Following a successful re-ballot over Christmas, staff at ten more universities voted to join this wave of strikes.

UCU leaders said the most recently published higher education finances, from 2019/20, showed total income across the sector was £41.9 billion, with reserves of £46.8bn. More students than ever are studying at UK universities, with enrolments rising by 9% this year. But the UCU warned that, despite increasing demand, many university staff were struggling to get by. They added that 90,000 academic and professional support workers were employed on insecure contracts.

Staff at institutions are also taking part in ongoing industrial action short of strikes. This includes working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action, and not undertaking any voluntary activities.

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UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "For a sector that is worth tens of billions of pounds and enjoys record levels of student growth it is beyond disgraceful that in return staff get vicious pension cuts, falling pay and are pushed to breaking point under deteriorating working conditions. Time is quickly running out for vice chancellors to avert strike action, but it can be done. Staff need a proper pay rise, action to tackle insecure contracts, unsafe workloads and pay inequality, and for devastating pension cuts to be revoked. Any disruption that occurs will be the clearest indication yet that university bosses don’t value their staff.

“This wave of strike action is a fight for the future of higher education and staff are proud to stand alongside students in the fight for an education system that treats students and staff with respect.”

NUS national president Larissa Kennedy said: “Students' unions and student organisers have a proud tradition of standing in solidarity with staff, and we saw this in action up and down the country in December.

“As students, we are acutely aware that staff working conditions are our learning conditions. The same education system that forces students into food banks exploits staff on insecure contracts, with some even having to sleep in tents while they mark our essays. The same system that produces awarding gaps that impact students of colour produces pay gaps that impact staff of colour.

“We will continue to stand with staff in their struggles because nothing about this broken system is inevitable. At NUS, we're calling on students to walk out of the education that doesn't work for any of us on March 2, and come together to re-imagine a new vision for education.”

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A UUK spokesman said: “Evidence from employers shows that UCU’s industrial action is not having the desired effect, with diminishing levels of disruption reported in every walkout since 2018. In December, only a third of UCU members at institutions eligible for industrial action chose to go on strike – accounting for just 9% of staff.

“Students will struggle to understand why they should bear the brunt of UCU’s refusal to confront the financial challenges facing all pension schemes.

“Instead of pursuing strike action and attempting to disrupt students’ education, the union should focus on working with employers to find a viable and affordable solution to the 2020 valuation which avoids the unaffordably high costs members and employers are facing from April.

“Universities will minimise the impact of any further industrial action on students by ensuring they can continue to learn and receive support.”