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The Lecturers Strike Back: Staff at University of Edinburgh back strike action

ByCraig Buchan

Nov 6, 2019

Staff at the University of Edinburgh, alongside other universities across the UK, have backed strike action over pay, working conditions and pensions.

University staff backed two separate ballots last Thursday, meaning industrial action looks increasingly likely.

In the ballot over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the university pension scheme, University of Edinburgh staff returned a result of 83 per cent in favour of strike action and 91 per cent in favour of action short of strikes, such as for example a marking boycott.

The other ballot, concerning pay, casualisation, equality and workloads, saw 79 percent vote in favour of strikes and 89 percent vote in favour of action short of strikes.

This is higher than the UK-wide result, which saw 79 per cent and 74 per cent respectively in favour of strikes.

The 50 per cent turnout threshold legally required for strike action was met in both ballots by university staff.

The turnout for the University of Edinburgh was at a marginally lower percentage than the Scottish average for the USS ballot, but nearly a full percent higher for the pay and working conditions ballot.

Nine Scottish institutions reached the turnout threshold for the USS ballot, while 11 qualified for the pay and working conditions ballot.

The other ancient universities in Scotland also backed strike action in both ballots, as did Edinburgh neighbours Herriot-Watt University, with Queen Margaret University only passing the turnout threshold for the pay and working conditions ballot.

The University and College Union (UCU) claims that changes to the USS since 2011 mean staff contribute £40,000 more to their pensions but receive £200,000 less in retirement.

Furthermore, a report from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) suggested that real terms staff pay had fallen by roughly 17 percent since 2009, while the UCU have suggested the true figure actually exceeds 20 percent.

In a statement, UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “The results can only be interpreted as clear support for strike action over pensions, pay and working conditions.

“The ballots reflect just how unhappy and angry staff are at the state of higher education.

“It is incredibly frustrating that we had to ballot members again, but universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions.

“Universities now have to come back to us prepared to work seriously to address these problems. “If they choose to ignore this message from their staff then strike action looks inevitable.”

The University of Edinburgh were approached for comment by The Student but declined to make a statement at this time.

In a statement to The Guardian, a spokesperson for Universities UK, an organisation that represents 136 universities across the UK, said: “Recent negotiations between UCU and Universities UK concluded with no cuts to USS pension benefits, and employers paying the majority of the extra contributions required under pensions law.

“In a challenging economic environment, this outcome is the best that could be achieved.

“Crucially, it is acceptable to both the USS trustees and the pensions regulator.”

In a statement to The Student, Edinburgh University Students’ Association President Andrew Wilson said: “It is too early to know at this stage what any form of industrial action might look like, or what the potential impact for students would be.

“It is the Students’ Association’s position that we need a mandate from our members to give the organisation a stance on whether or not to support any action.

“Student council is the forum by which our members can mandate the position the association takes on this issue.”

In a statement, National President of the National Union of Students Zamzam Ibrahim said: “We support and stand with University and College Union members in this fight and will work with students’ unions to build student support.

“We know that together students and workers can and will win and we look forward to building a better and more just education system together.

“The ballot results show clearly that the time has come for Universities Superannuation Scheme to take on the recommendations of UCU for a just and fair pensions system.

“The result of the pay, equality, workload and casualisation ballot will no doubt be frustrating for UCU activists, but it shows that there is a clear need for action on these issues and students will be behind this every step of the way.”

This follows previous industrial action in 2018, where UCU strikes against proposed changes to the USS embroiled 61 universities across the UK.

The first wave of strike action took place between 22 February to 20 March.

The action particularly affected the University of Edinburgh, where which many lecturers chose to strike for the full fourteen days.

This coincided with Edinburgh being hit by record breaking snowstorms, leaving many students’ experiences ground to a halt during the period.

Support for the striking lecturers in the 2018 industrial action was sensationally shown by a group of students occupying the now renamed George Aikman Lecture Theatre for a number of weeks.

The students barricaded themselves into the lecture theatre and handed out leaflets declaring ‘Edinburgh University is Occupied’ and calling on Principal Peter Mathieson to listen to the UCU demands.

The industrial action came to an end on 13 April 2018 when UCU members voted to accept a proposal approved by UUK to resolve the pensions dispute with 63.5 per cent of UCU members turning out to vote. The timing meant that no exams or graduations were affected.

The Student will be closely following the recent developments.
Image: Andrew Perry

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