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A Freshers’ Guide to UCU Strike Action

There are two members of staff holding a white banner that reads 'UCU University and College Union, King's College London'. They are standing outside the Strand building.
Photo by Elizabeth Grace

News Editor Imogen Dixon explains the impact that strike action will likely have on the education of incoming King’s College London (KCL) students.

It feels as though strikes have become a feature of daily life at King’s. For almost two years, students have seen continuous waves of strike action from the King’s College London (KCL) branch of the University and College Union (UCU), who represent many of the university’s academic staff. With further strike action planned for September and an upcoming UCU re-ballot, where members will likely vote to renew their industrial action mandate, it seems that strikes will continue to feature in the upcoming academic year. But who are the parties involved and what do they want?

Who are the stakeholders?

University and College Union (UCU)

  • The UCU trade union represent over 120,000 academics and support staff in further and higher education
  • They are running a campaign called ‘UCU Rising’ over the pay and working conditions of members
  • The campaign also had disputes over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions scheme. On 5 October, UCU announced that cuts made to the USS pensions scheme will be restored, as agreed by Universities UK
  • Their demands include:
    • An increase to wages of inflation plus two percent
    • Nationally agreed action to close gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps
    • Elimination of precarious employment practices
    • Nationally agreed action to address excessive workloads and unpaid work
    • A standard full-time employment contract of 35 hours weekly
  • KCL’s branch of the UCU is referred to as KCL UCU and they are also involved in specific local disputes with KCL management
  • UCU members want to end strikes, after a favourable settlement from their employer, so that they can return to teaching and researching

Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA)

  • The UCEA represent universities and higher education (HE) colleges collectively in negotiations
  • They advise members on employment matters

KCL Management

  • King’s College London is represented by the UCEA in national talks
  • They are also involved in local disputes with KCL UCU
  • They aim to:
    • Avoid the increased cost of wage hikes
    • Maintain student satisfaction/enrolment by ending strikes

Students

  • Are paying tuition fees of £9,250 or more
  • Want investment in both education and educators
  • Want to avoid disruption to studies by strike action
  • UCU want students to support lecturers and put pressure on universities to increase pay by complaining and participating in the campaign
  • UCEA and KCL management want students to pressure UCU to accept the current pay offer and end strike action by not supporting the strikes

What do ‘strike action’ and ‘action short of strike’ (ASOS) entail?

Strike action involves workers refusing to carry out any work for their employer on specified strike days. In the case of the UCU, this includes not engaging in activities such as teaching, administration, emails related to work or research.

ASOS is action which only affects certain aspects of employees’ work. This might include working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, refusing to share materials related to lectures or classes cancelled because of strike action, and not rescheduling these cancelled lectures or classes. The Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) that disrupted students’ graduations this summer is an example of ASOS.

What can we expect this year?

Throughout September there were continual changes to planned industrial action at King’s. While the UCU called off the MAB at the national level on 6 September, the KCL branch chose to continue it “to achieve [their] demands for fair play, a voice and equality at work”. However, on 19 September KCL UCU called off their marking boycott following the successful resolution of their local disputes with KCL management, accepting:

  • a rise in London Weighting to £5000 from December (the highest in London, including UCL)
  • raising paid maternity leave from 18 to 20 weeks and paid paternity leave from 2 to 6 weeks (the first step towards equalising childcare responsibility, and undoing a major structural cause of the gender pay gap)
  • 20% subsidies for childcare costs at registered Ofsted providers
  • a written collective agreement with a framework for future negotiation and dispute resolution for the first time at KCL in over a decade 
  • at least 2 more staff-elected members on the KCL Council, the governing body, promised ahead of a major governance review – out of which we want to see a majority-elected Council

Furthermore, following a general meeting on 20 September, KCL UCU voted not to take part in the planned 5 days of national strike action, citing unhappiness with the organisation of industrial action at the national level.

UCU’s current industrial action mandate expired at the end of September, however the union is currently in the process of re-balloting its members to extend their industrial mandate for a third time. Should its members vote in favour to continue the dispute, the industrial action mandate would renew for another six months, meaning that strike action could continue throughout the 2023-24 academic year.

Should the industrial mandate be renewed, it seems likely that KCL UCU will participate in any further strike action. The branch stated that it is “still fully committed to winning the national Four Fights dispute” in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter):

It is worth noting that UCU is one of five HE trade unions. All five are either currently balloting or have balloted in the last year for industrial action. Should their ballots be successful, universities might see other services disrupted, such as access to libraries.

As always, Roar will keep students updated on the latest strike news. For more information, please see the UCU Strikes page on our website.

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