Education sector promises historic strike action

University and College Union (UCU) members on strike marching at a rally in London.
University and College Union (UCU) members on strike marching at a rally in London.

A fresh wave of strike action is coming to Britain’s education sector, as school and university staff fight years of below-inflation pay deals and worsening conditions.

Actions are planned in the coming weeks by the University and College Union (UCU), National Education Union (NEU), Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), and the teachers’ union NASUWT.

The key issues for university staff are pay, conditions, and pensions. Most staff have recieved a measly pay increase of 3% over the past year – a real-terms pay cut – and on top of that, changes made to pensions will leave them with a pension that is on average 35% smaller than it previously would have been.

To fight these increasingly dire conditions, the UCU will be taking action over eighteen days across February and March, in 150 universities.

One common argument used against the UCU strikes is that many students pay £9,000 a year to attend university, and so it would be unfair to disrupt their education.

But if universities are making £9,000 per student a year – even more for international students – they are in no position to refuse to pay their staff properly, or provide them with dignified pensions. It is entirely by choice that university administrations have left their staff facing years of real-terms pay cuts.

Jo Grady, General-Secretary of the UCU, said: “Whilst the cost-of-living crisis rages, university Vice-Chancellors are dragging their feet and refusing to use the vast wealth in the sector to address over a decade of falling pay, rampant casualisation and massive pension cuts.

“On 1 February, 70,000 university staff will walk out alongside fellow trade unions and hundreds of thousands of other workers to demand their fair share.”

The 1 February strike will coincide with the Trades Union Congress ‘protect the right to strike’ day, as will the first of the NEU’s upcoming strikes. NEU teaching staff have overwhelmingly voted for strike action, with over 90% in favour in both England and Wales.

Although NEU support staff in English schools also voted strongly in favour of similar action (84%), and likewise in English sixth form colleges (83.5%), neither group met the government’s ballot threshold of 50% – with turnouts of 46% and 36% respectively.

That votes so strongly in favour of action should be deemed illegitimate by Westminster reminds us of the ongoing struggle by the state to crush organised labour. This is an active role that has seen Rishi Sunak’s government push for ever more restrictive trade union laws that would effectively ban strike action in certain industries.

Though English support staff have been undermined by the government’s turnout requirements, support staff in Welsh schools successfully voted for strike action with a turnout of 51%.

Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretaries of the NEU, said: “It is disappointing that the Government prefers to talk about yet more draconian anti-strike legislation, rather than work with us to address the causes of strike action.

“This is not about a pay rise but correcting historic real-terms pay cuts. Teachers have lost 23% in real terms since 2010, and support staff 27% over the same period. The average 5% pay rise for teachers this year is some 7% behind inflation. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, that is an unsustainable situation.

“The Government has also been happy to sit by as their own recruitment targets are routinely missed. Teachers are leaving in droves, a third gone within five years of qualifying. This is a scandalous waste of talent and taxpayers’ money, yet the Government seems unbothered about the conditions they are allowing schools and colleges to slide into.”

The EIS is currently carrying out a series of staggered strikes, beginning on 16 January and ending on 6 February.

Mia English, is Challenge’s News Editor

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