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HE pay and equalities - explained!

Frequently asked questions (and answers!) about the HE pay and equalities dispute

Why are we balloting on pay when the employers have offered a 1.8% pay rise?

The employers' offer is below inflation, meaning yet another real terms pay cut for staff. The value of pay in higher education has fallen by around 20% since 2009; meanwhile employers have failed to take effective action to tackle the persistent gender and race pay gaps that exist in our sector. We need to send a strong signal that we won't tolerate continued pay erosion or pay inequality.

Why are we linking pay, workload and casualisation in one dispute?

The pay and equality ballot is about demanding fair treatment for staff across the sector. The combination of pay erosion, unmanageable workloads and the widespread use of insecure contracts has undermined professionalism and made the working environment more stressful for staff. The average working week in higher education is now above 50 hours, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. Meanwhile more than 100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do.

We need to ensure that careers in higher education remain attractive for the future - that means taking a coordinated approach to tackling these problems that affect staff across the sector.

Why is tackling casualisation a priority for the pay ballot?

Casualisation is rife within higher education: 70% of researchers in HE are employed on fixed-term contracts, while many more have contracts which are dependent on funding. A whopping 37,000 teaching staff are employed on fixed-term contracts, and a further 71,000 teachers are employed as 'atypical academics'.

The use of casual contracts erodes the rights, protections and security that should be afforded to all employees. Casualisation also makes it much more difficult for staff to challenge employers about key workplace issues, because staff are often reluctant to 'rock the boat' and risk their employment being terminated.

Finally, casualisation has real material consequences for staff - UCU's research showed that 42% of staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills, while many others struggle to make long-term financial commitments like buying a house.

What sort of action might I be asked to take if the ballot is successful?

A strong vote for industrial action means that, if the employers fail to meet UCU's demands, we will have significant leverage to change their minds, as we have done before. While our preferred option is to resolve the dispute through negotiation without any disruption to students, the employers need to know that we are serious and prepared to hit hard with industrial action if needed.

For that reason the HEC has discussed taking up to 14 days of strike action beginning in the middle of November, as well as action short of a strike in the form of working to contract. If the employers still aren't willing to bring forward an acceptable offer after sustained strike action, we also have the option of deploying a marking and assessment boycott.

Won't industrial action cause unnecessary disruption to my students?

The decision to take industrial action is never taken lightly, but the stakes in this dispute are high. We're fighting to keep higher education careers sustainable, not just for now but for the future when many of those students may be working in HE themselves; decent pay and conditions are central to that aim.

We are pleased that NUS has also issued a joint statement with us, offering support and solidarity from students in both the USS and HE pay disputes.

Who is calling the shots in the dispute?

Ultimately it is members who will decide what happens next. The HEC will meet on 1 November to consider the outcome of the ballot and agree on how to proceed.

Can members who are on Tier 2 migrant visas take part in strikes?

Yes. Thanks to campaigning from UCU and others during the dispute in 2018, the government confirmed in July 2018 that it was changing the immigration rules and Tier 2 sponsor guidance to make it clear that Tier 2 migrants could participate in legal strike action without it threatening their leave to remain. Strike action has been added to the list of exceptions to the rule on absences from employment without pay.

I've already voted - what else can I do?

Thank you for voting! Here are three more ways you can support the dispute:

  • spread the word! Wear a sticker, put up a poster, shout about it on social media - however you do it, make sure that everyone knows there's a ballot on.

  • tell your friends and colleagues that you've voted, and ask them to do the same - a personal note from you could be the difference between them voting or not.
  • ask your vice chancellor to put pressure on the employer body, UCEA, to change its approach and commit to sector-wide action on these issues
Last updated: 3 October 2019