What is going on with the UCU strikes? page banner

What is going on with the UCU strikes?


UCU - University and College Union, UCU, is a trade union that represents a large number of University staff in the UK, such as lecturers, professional service staff and postgraduate students.

UUK - Universities UK, UUK, is a representative organisation for the UK's universities.

USS - Universities Superannuation Scheme, USS, is one of the largest principal private pension schemes for universities and other higher education institutions in the UK.

JNC - Joint Negotiating Committee, JNC, of the USS is a committee consisting of representatives from both UCU and UUK.

Industrial Action - Industrial action is action taken by employees as a protest which can, for example, take the form of either a strike or action short of a strike.

Strike - A strike is a refusal to work organised by a body of employees as a form of protest.

Action Short of a Strike - Action short of a strike is an organised action by a body of employees as a form of a protest through actions that, as the name suggests, are just short of a strike. UCU has announced that in this dispute action short of a strike means that their members will only work to contract; not cover for absent colleagues; not reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action; and not undertake any voluntary activities over the course of the announced strike dates.

Picket line - A boundary established by workers on strike, especially at the entrance to the place of work, which others are asked not to cross.

What is going to happen and how will this affect you?

The strike action will take place over eight consecutive days from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December. During this time staff who are on strike will not teach any of their lectures or seminars and will not respond to any emails they receive.

Union members will also begin ‘action short of a strike’ after this, which involves things like working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

Students can ask their tutors about the strike and whether or not they will have classes, but teachers who are unionised have no legal obligation to confirm whether they will be attending work or not during this time. Some teaching staff may choose to share materials and even reschedule classes, but again they are not obligated to. It is up to individual choice.

Bus information :

  • Buses will be not coming on to campus from 7:30-3pm every day of the strike action and will be terminating at the A27 stop just outside campus not too far from the Medical School.
  • Because of the lack of buses to transport students with disabilities around campus from 9:30 a free mini bus will be operate around campus. The mini bus will ready ‘accessible transport’ .
  • To access the mini bus you can use any of the following;

    - Sunflower Lanyard (available from Falmer House/ Student Life Centre)

    - Helping Hand Bus Pass

    - A Concessionary Disabled Persons’ Bus Pass

    As the minibus is arranged to start running at 09:30 the fill the gap will be filled by Streamline taxis who will provide a (wheelchair accessible) vehicle from 07:30-09:30 to transport student around campus, this will be a free taxi and be available for any disabled students who need it. You find this taxi at bus stop opposite Biology Road.

We understand that this could cause anxiety for some students. We, your Students' Union, are here to support you as much as we can during this time. Students can also direct questions to UCU and the University during this time.

The strike action will include picket lines at campus entry points. This means that there might be disruption to bus services and cars acccessing campus.

Students who support the strike can join staff on the picket lines as a sign of solidarity with the strike.

Students can also choose not to attend classes which are being taught in solidarity - please be aware that THIS WILL THEN BE RECORDED AS AN ABSENCE.

In cases where classes do not happen as a result of teaching staff striking, attendance/absence WILL NOT BE RECORDED

Non-striking students and staff will be encouraged by those on the picket lines to not enter campus to show solidarity. They will not physically obstruct you from doing so and you will be able to enter the campus if you need to.

Staff and students on the picket lines may want to chat to you about the strike and share leaflets etc, but they may not stop you from coming onto campus, or harrass or intimidate you in any way.

Whilst UCU primarily represents academic staff they do also represent some professional services staff as well. This means that as well as disruption to teaching, there may be possible disruption to other services which are provided on campus. Unfortunately before the strike action begins we will not know how much professional services will be affected, but the Students' Union and the University will keep students updated as much as we can.

On Thursday 14 November, a Students’ Union Special Council agreed upon a Students’ Union statement regarding the impending UCU strike action. Students were invited to share their views and debate the issue.

The following statement was agreed:

'As a co-defender of education and in order to protect the interests of our membership, Sussex Students’ Union stands in solidarity with UCU and staff striking for a just and fair education system...' Read the full statement here.

Background to the UCU strike

You can watch this video by UCU explaining the reasons for the strike.

There are two things issues which UCU members were balloted on:

  • The first was changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This basically means changes to their pensions and how much they pay into them. UCU say that University staff will lose tens of thousands of pounds in retirement because of a series of detrimental changes made to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) since 2011, according to new analysis. According to modelling by First Actuarial, because of the changes to USS, a typical UCU member will pay around £40,000 more in to their pension, but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement leaving them £240,000 worse off in total.
  • The second issue was about the state of pay, contracts and workloads. The UCU says that staff pay has fallen by around 20% in the last decade. UCU also estimates that more than half of all academics are on temporary contracts.

At the University of Sussex staff voted to strike on both these issues and will be one of a group of sixty Universities which will see strike action. Staff at IDS will only be striking over pensions, and not regarding pay. The strikes themselves will be taking place 25 November-4 December. At Sussex 84% of members who voted backed strikes on a turnout of 67%. 80% of members backed strikes over pay and conditions on a turnout of 68%.

After that staff will be taking part in Action Short of a Strike. This basically means that staff will work very strictly to what is written in their contract, for example, not covering for absent colleagues, and not to rescheduling lectures lost to strike action.

What happened in 2018?

Staff also went on strike in 2018, where action took place over four weeks on fourteen days. Following the strike, students whose teaching had been disrupted by the strike were able to claim compensation for the time that had been lost. Both UCU and UUK had returned to negotiations after the first round of strikes but were unable to come to agreement, which led to members of the UCU voting to strike again.

Many universities compensated for the teaching that was lost, for example they:

  • Removed topics from examinations
  • Changed assessment methods
  • Extended deadlines
  • Changed the weighting of different module elements and
  • Given exam boards discretion to make allowance for poor performance that appeared out of line with performance elsewhere

It is possible that Sussex will choose to make up teaching in a similar way following this round of industrial action. The Office for Students , which is the independent regulator of Higher Education institutions, has produced a briefing on the University's responsibility for students. Download it here.

What can you, as a student, do?

If you have concerns about the impact that the strikes will have on teaching, you can take the following steps:

If you want to get involved with other students in supporting the striking UCU staff members :

Please remember: Whether you agree with the strike or not, we as your Students' Union are here to support you.

The Office for Students has provided the following advice for students:

‘If you have had or will have your studies, assessments or other services disrupted, then you should contact your university or college in the first instance. You should be able to discuss whether it is possible to make up for any lost teaching, and whether any other loss of services and support can be rearranged so as to minimise the disruption that you have sustained.

Where lost teaching has had an impact on assessments or other work that has had to be submitted, you may be able to submit a claim for this to be taken into account as part of your university’s mitigating or extenuating circumstances process. For example, it may be appropriate to agree that deadlines for course work or dissertations should be extended. You should discuss this with your tutors or other appropriate staff. Your student union may also be able to offer advice.

If you’re not happy with the University’s response

If the issue is not satisfactorily resolved, then you have the right to complain through the University’s complaints processes. The process for this should be made clear to you by your university. If you have completed the complaints procedure and you are still unhappy with the outcome, you have the right to make a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA).

The OIA is an ombudsman scheme which looks at whether a higher education provider has fair procedures, whether it has followed those procedures correctly, and whether the outcome for the student is reasonable. The OIA has published useful guidance about its approach to complaints by students affected by the industrial action. They have also published case studies demonstrating the sort of complaints that have or have not been upheld in the past. There is no charge to students for lodging a complaint with the OIA.

The Office for Students regulatory powers in the event of future industrial action

Although we are unable to deal with the complaints of individual students, the OfS will seek to identify higher education providers who have failed to systematically protect the interests of students in the case of significant industrial action. Universities and colleges have to comply with a number of conditions to register with us, and we have published a note setting out where disruption to students’ studies may amount to a breach of these conditions.

We would expect to see that universities and colleges have taken all reasonable steps to reduce the impact of the strike action on teaching, learning and assessment, and have communicated clearly to students what the impact of any industrial action will be, particularly in relation to exams and assessments.

Universities and colleges should also make clear how certain groups of students, e.g. international students, will be affected and what mitigations will be put in place for them. They should also make clear to students who to contact if they wish to discuss the impact of the industrial action on them and get advice.

Where there is evidence of systematic failure at a registered higher education provider that risks breaching our conditions of registration, student bodies and third parties are able to notify us directly by contacting [email protected] We may ask you or the provider for more information and will decide whether any mitigations are necessary.’

For more information, see The Office for Students website .

More information

  • WonkHE is an organisation which examines policy in Higher Education. They have written several helpful pieces about the strikes:

‘This is no ordinary strike’

‘Learning from Students’ Industrial Action Complaints’

  • The Times Higher Education has published a piece titled ‘UUK reforms will cut USS pensions by up to 40 per cent’ . It outlines in depth how the proposed plans, as agreed by JNC will significantly impact the pensions of its members - and primarily those just beginning their careers.
  • The University of Sussex has published information for staff and students about the upcoming industrial action, including commonly asked questions and background information for the dispute.
  • University and College Union has published a strike FAQ , answering questions about the upcoming industrial action.