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UK university workers kick off two-day strike

University workers around the UK are staging a two-day strike today over widespread pay inequality throughout the country’s higher education sector.

The 48-hour strike, which involves around 60,000 University College Union (UCU) members, was scheduled after a number of talks failed to resolve a pay dispute between the UCU and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA).

UCU members are warning further action if the situation is not resolved in the coming weeks, beginning with a working contract which states that staff must refuse to work overtime, set supplementary work or pursue any voluntary duties such as classroom cover.

“If no agreement is reached in the coming weeks, members have agreed to further strike action which could affect open days, graduation ceremonies and the clearing process,” said the UCU.

“The union is also beginning preparations for a boycott of the setting and marking of students’ work to begin in the autumn.”

The conflict began after the union rejected the UCEA’s offer of a 1.1 percent rise, claiming that universities could afford to pay more after it was revealed that Vice-Chancellors (VC) received an increase of 5.1 percent last year.

Anne Carlisle, for example, current VC at a leading university in the southwest, received a hefty financial boost of almost £60,000 last year, taking her annual wage to almost £300,000, Times Higher Education revealed.

The UCU’s General Secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “A 1.1 percent pay offer is an insult to hard-working staff, especially in light of the five percent pay rise Vice-Chancellors have enjoyed while holding down staff pay. Members have made it quite clear that they won’t tolerate a continued squeeze on their income, pay inequality and the increasing job insecurity blighting the sector.”

In the midst of the widespread walkouts, planned to take place around the UK including in Belfast, Birmingham, Bolton, Brighton, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, the UCU has emphasised the huge proportion of university employees working on fixed term or zero-hour contracts – a figure which currently stands at 49 percent.

This means almost half of the UK’s workers in higher education boast very little security in their positions, despite being the people these institutions depend on for teaching and marking, as well as for more general admin roles.

Ionnna Ioannou, a researcher and member of the UCU’s National Executive Committee, was picketing today at University College London (UCL). She told Socialist Worker that while the higher education sector is supposed to have the best conditions and levels of job satisfaction, the reality is in fact very different.

“We face fixed term and casual contracts, and we are paid less than male colleagues,” she said, before noting that gender-based pay inequality is generally because more men are awarded positions that fall in higher pay grades.

“I feel poor all the time,” she adds. “I don’t feel secure enough to plan my life.”

On average, female academics in the UK’s higher education sector are paid £6,103 per year less than their male counterparts, The Telegraph reports.

Unite the Union, which has approximately 12,000 members currently working in the sector, has also discussed joining the strike, with the ballot set to close on 6 June.

Mike McCartney, the Unite National Officer, said: “We are calling on Unite members to reject the offer on the table. They have seen their pay slashed over recent years, while many university bosses are raking in more than the Prime Minister.

“Clearly there is unfairness in the pay system and that hurts our members, who are mainly technicians, porters and cleaning staff without whom universities would not function. These are the workers who are the key to providing a good student experience.”

Image via Flickr.

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