Higher education (HE) bosses have been told they are "underestimating" staff anger amid competing claims about the size and impact of national strike action. 

The warning came as eight Scottish institutions saw lecturers walk out over what the University and College Union (UCU) has branded "brutal" pension cuts. 

Employees at Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Stirling, Strathclyde and the Open universities will be among those participating over the coming days.

Around 6,000 employees are set to take to the picket line, with 68 institutions around the UK facing disruption amid disputes regarding pay, conditions and pensions.

In an apparent attempt to downplay the strikes, university representatives said levels of industrial action were "low" and that fewer staff had been taking part. However, UCU bosses insisted "thousands" turned out on Monday to prevent what they called a "devastating" 35 per cent cut to their guaranteed retirement income. 

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Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said support from students had been "overwhelming". She added: "These strikes over pension cuts were totally avoidable, but university employers have so far failed to accept compromise proposals put forward by UCU which would have protected pensions and avoided disruptive industrial action.

"Further strikes can be called off, but first employers must accept UCU’s proposals." 

Her comments were echoed by Mary Senior, UCU's Scotland official, who told The Herald: "We’ve seen strong and united industrial action by university staff across Scotland, including lively picket lines in Dundee, St Andrews, Stirling, and across universities in the Central Belt. 

"We’re seeing more people out on picket lines as Strathclyde university staff joined the action today. Employers have underestimated their staff, and they’ve underestimated university workers’ anger at these swingeing cuts to their pensions. 

"Now that UCU has put forward alternative pension proposals, employers should do the right thing to resolve the dispute, ditch their cuts and implement UCU’s compromise proposals."

Among those who joined the picket lines in Glasgow was Scottish Government minister and Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie.

Bosses at the Universities and Colleges Employers Association called the UCU action "disappointing". Chief executive Raj Jethwa said: “Despite the low levels of disruption, it is disappointing that UCU continues to encourage what is, albeit a small minority of its members, to take strike action once again. There will be regret of any disruption, no matter how insignificant, to students.

“While these early reports are of low levels of industrial action and disruption to teaching it does, of course, take time for these large organisations to find out exactly how many scheduled classes have not taken place on a given day.

"Furthermore, some HE institutions (HEIs) cannot provide details at this time, others do not have any teaching scheduled with many facing half-term holidays and reading weeks too. Each HE institution is of course fully focused on managing this period of disruption as best they can for their students.

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“In the pay dispute, any IA next week is an unrealistic attempt to force all 146 employers to re-open the concluded 2021-22 national pay round. We respect employees’ right to take lawful industrial action, but it is misleading to their members for UCU to ask them to lose pay – in addition to the 3 days’ pay lost in December - in pursuit of an unrealistic 7% pay demand at just over one third of the HEIs in the collective pay arrangements.

"Rather than continuing this disruption, UCU should engage constructively in this year’s (2022-23) multi-employer negotiating round which is planned to begin at the end of March.”

A spokeswoman for Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) Employers said: "We understand that strike action is unsettling for students and particularly after the disruption of the last two years – so it is disappointing that once again a small minority plan to walk out today.

“The numbers taking strike action have fallen in every walkout since 2018 – only 9% of staff at affected institutions took part in the last strike in December and the impact of their actions was low. Universities however are well prepared to protect students and ensure they do not miss out on the opportunity to learn during this time.

“Employers still want to resolve the dispute and will continue to meet with the union, but any solution must be affordable and viable – it is not in the interests of staff or students for employers to agree to the UCU’s completely unaffordable demands on pensions and pay, which would damage education, research and force job losses."