#ucuRISING: What this means for the University of York


Grace Fegan discusses the reasons behind the latest round of strike action and what it means for staff, students and the wider university.

Article Image

Image by Becca Roslyn

By Grace Fegan

It came as no surprise when the university announced its’ participation in industrial action throughout February and March 2023, following the University and College Union’s (UCU) call to action. The strike action began on Wednesday 1st February, with the other seventeen strike days including:

  • 9th and 10th February
  • 14th, 15th and 16th February
  • 21st, 22nd and 23rd February
  • 27th and 28th February
  • 1st and 2nd March
  • 16th and 17th March
  • 20th, 21st and 22nd March

Although these are the only outlined strike days, the UCU has also announced that they will re-ballot staff at all 150 universities taking part. Therefore, industrial action may well continue throughout 2023.

This call to action, catalysed by the increasing disapproval over pension, pay, and working conditions, however, is not the first time that we’ve seen university staff members on strike. This bout is part of a larger series of strikes that began in February of 2018 over the disputed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The USS is a pension scheme for academics and academic-related staff. When first established in 1975, the USS initially provided multiple benefits to academic staff upon retirement. However, following years of deficit and multiple changes to the required contribution charge, the USS announced in 2018 the closure of the defined benefits (DB) part of the scheme, in an attempt to prevent staff members paying higher contribution rates. This is just one of the reasons as to why staff pensions have been cut by 35 percent according to Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary. Instigating this series of strike action in 2018, disputes over pensions remains a key reason as to why 70,000 university staff members will continue striking in 2023.

However, this is not the only issue that university staff will be striking over. Pay and working conditions, which fall under the same ballot, are among other key issues that union members are disputing. Particularly in recent years, The University of York has felt the effects of the antiquated funding system for UK undergraduates according to Charlie Jeffery, the University’s Vice Chancellor. The amount of funding, having remained the same for the past decade, has meant that the rising inflation rates have simply eaten away at it. Accordingly, the University has been unable to reward pay rises to academic staff. The current cost of living crisis has particularly exacerbated the effects of this stagnant pay rate.

On working conditions, staff complaints have been directed specifically towards overwhelming amounts of work, leading to hours of unpaid work. Casual worker contracts are similarly being targeted. The University of York has made the first steps to remove these contracts, with over 350 Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTA’s) having been issued fixed term contracts. Yet despite this effort, according to many this simply isn’t enough; the UCU observes that 46 percent of UK universities use zero hour teaching contracts.

Although it is hard to comment on the exact action that staff members at York will take as staff members are not obliged to inform the University of their intention to strike, this industrial action will consist of both striking and action short of a strike. The action short of a strike, mandated in November of 2022, includes participants not volunteering to do more than working to their contracted hours and duties, not rescheduling classes, cancelling extra lectures, and not covering for absent colleagues. Staff members may also participate in picketing. This can only be undertaken lawfully by workers who are employed by the employer who are directly involved with the dispute (The University of York), workers who have lost their job for a reason connected to the dispute, or a Trade Union official that is picketing with the members that they represent.

It appears that there is an altogether conflicting attitude towards this industrial action between different staff members, with some in full support, and others wary of the wider impact this action will cause. But what do the students think about the upcoming strike action? After interviewing multiple students, it appears that like staff, the general feeling is conflicted:

One student commented on her full support for the strikes, acknowledging in particular the impact that PhD students are facing, and how ‘in a few years, this is likely where a lot of the current students will be’. However, she also describes her frustrations at the fact that the students are bearing the brunt of this industrial action; ‘At the end of the day the University is still going to get the same amount of money whether my education is disrupted or not’.

Another stated, ‘strikes have affected all three years that I’ve been at university so far. As a nursing student, I spend a large proportion of the year on placement. Therefore the teaching hours I do receive are really important, and to have these affected by strikes is both frustrating and stressful’.

A second-year English Literature student stated, “I understand why the university staff members are striking and am sympathetic of their situation, however it is incredibly disruptive and unfair for students”. She continues that “students should be reimbursed for the tuition they have missed, as the staff do not get paid for striking meaning that the university is the only party that doesn’t lose out”. She further comments on the need for proactive listening on the University’s part, ensuring that this series of industrial action will cause some sort of change, and thus prevent further strike action taken in the future.

Finally, another student has described their support for the causes of the strikes, after all,  ‘you don’t strike for no reason’. As a fourth-year mathematics student, however, they reflected on their interest to see which lecturers will strike. This student has the potential to lose 8 hours’ worth of teaching from 1 lecturer alone. As they are currently writing their dissertation, they are fearful of what impact this strike action may have on their final grade.

In response, a University of York spokesperson has stated that “we understand that students will be concerned about the potential impact on their studies and we also recognise that the decision to take industrial action is not taken lightly - we respect colleagues' right to take part”. They further acknowledge that “some students may feel more impact, whilst others may experience none at all, so we will be assessing the disruption and how to deliver alternative or additional teaching.”

And yet, whether the majority of students or staff support this action or not, the strikes will be taking place. So what happens next? After having declined an initial offer of a 4-5 percent pay rise from employers, the UCU remarked on how this ‘is just not enough’, particularly as this offer doesn’t include any action taken to prevent casual work, or overwhelming workloads. If these issues remain unresolved and the UCU doesn’t receive its proposed offer, it is likely that industrial action will continue into the foreseeable future.