2018 UK higher education placards at the University of Edinburgh. Photo: Stinglehammer, Wikipedia. 2018 UK higher education placards at the University of Edinburgh. Photo: Stinglehammer, Wikipedia.

After 22 days of industrial action this year, the University and College Union (UCU) will now contend with the coronavirus outbreak as well, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica.

The UCU has been engaged in the longest period of strike activity in its history – 22 days in one in the academic year 2019-2020 – and no immediate result is apparent on the horizon.

With the strike mandate running out at the end of April, and the country facing the Covid-19 crisis, it looks very likely that no resolution will arrive before the next academic year.

This article surveys the strengths and weaknesses of the action so far before suggesting a way forward, with a special reference to the coronavirus pandemic.

Transformation of the UCU since 2018

An obvious starting point in assessing what we have achieved so far is to underline that the UCU looks like a transformed, more combative union since the great strike of February and March 2018.

Before that, the union had failed to lead a significant fightback against the marketization of education (although it often did lead the union movement in other ways, such as the BDS campaign against Israel).

Formed in 2006, following a merger between the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), the UCU never quite lived up to expectations.

Led by Sally Hunt from her first election in 2007 to her resignation due to illness in 2019, the union rarely took part in sustained periods of industrial action, engaging instead in token one- or two-day strikes.

This changed with the threat to the USS pension scheme in 2017-2018, which would have seen pensions almost halved and the scheme in peril of folding.

With the 14-day strike in February and March 2018, the rank-and-file upsurge in the union prevented a sell-out deal recommended by Sally Hunt and forced a re-evaluation of the scheme by an independent body.

More than that, it led to the regeneration of many local branches, the election in 2019 of a new general secretary, Jo Grady, who emerged out of the 2018 strikes, and a more combative, left-leaning national executive committee.

The strikes of 2019-2020: strengths and weaknesses

The new national leadership decided to make up for the time lost in the fightback. It was buoyed by the union’s success in 2018, and the mandate given to Grady with a record turnout of 20.5 percent and a vote of 64% against Matt Waddup as the continuity candidate with the Hunt years in 2019.


But the record of the last year of action is at the moment mixed. While it has undoubtedly deepened connections between rank-and-file activists and rejuvenated many local branches, as well as emboldened student solidarity actions like the 11 university occupations in support of the strike, the action has also so far failed to deliver a resolution, despite a record 22 days of strikes. 

The strikes have certainly forced the employers back into negotiations on both pensions and pay and equalities – generating ‘commitments’ from employers to address workload, gender and BME pay gaps and casualisation and forcing them to relinquish the most pessimistic accounts of the USS deficit – it nevertheless seems clear that they are willing to dig their heels in for now.

It is not easy to determine why this has been the case, and there are several obvious weaknesses involved. To beat Tory anti-union laws, the union decided on a disaggregated ballot. This has meant that 74 institutions ultimately joined the action, but almost as many did not, including the majority of post-92s, weakening the union’s collective pressure on employers.

One dispute, many demands

Moreover, our demands have weaknesses as well as strengths. The obvious strengths were that a plethora of issues were joined up that represented a genuine first attempt to resist the relentless and decades-long marketization drive from government and university managements.

These included: a fight to maintain a decent pension scheme; the first pay rise above inflation for over a decade; more manageable workloads in an overworked sector; action to address the  abhorrent BME and race and gender pay-gaps; and an end to casualization, which plagues the sector.

That managed to unite (often senior) staff on open-ended contracts with (mostly younger) staff on casual contracts; men and women; and pre- and post-92 universities. It did so on a more offensive and political basis than the union has been used to for many years and is a crucial step forward in the union’s industrial relations strategy.

But, at the same time, the problem with the strike was that it seemed like too much at the same time for too many. There were real tensions. What would happen if employers made more concessions on pensions (as they appear to have been doing in negotiations) than on the other issues, the so-called ‘4 fights’ (where limited progress has been made on casualization, pay gaps and working conditions, but not pay)?

Unevenness and division in the union

Creating bonds of solidarity that would survive the employers’ divide and rule tactics is, of course, not impossible, but requires major preparation in terms of educating and organising members as well as consulting members on every step of the dispute.

While Jo Grady did criss-cross the country in autumn 2019 on a speaking tour of universities calling for a ‘yes’ vote in the ballot, much of the day-to-day work was left entirely to unevenly developed local branches across the country. Inevitably, stronger union branches felt more confident about calling mass and lengthy action, while weaker branches expressed unease. There were also factional divisions between groups, and, in effect, the marginalisation of branches not taking part in the strike action even though many nevertheless face the prospect of redundancies and increased workload.

It is apparent that Jo Grady herself has sought to distinguish herself from the escalation strategy proposed by UCU Left, and a ‘non-faction faction’ in support of her stood and did well against the UCU Left slate in the recent HEC elections, betraying the latter’s lack of a developed rank-and-file network. 

But the general secretary’s own emails during the dispute, indicating a scaling back of union demands and a propensity to communicate over the heads of elected negotiators, suggest her own approach was increasingly to offer some ‘significant concessions’ in order to settle the dispute. Such a negotiating tactic could not have done much to entice our employers to do anything but sit out the strikes, and wait for the union to turn in on itself at its forthcoming conference.

After coronavirus: where next?

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, just as the union was going to re-ballot its membership on further action over the summer, has postponed a difficult campaign to lead staff back into a dispute which was likely to get more contentious as it was almost inevitably going to include a marking boycott, always a tense affair.

This will, in the short term, mean that the union will have to face different immediate challenges. With a Tory government taking shockingly poor preventative measures – appearing to be led by social Darwinism first and foremost – many staff and students will be worried about their own wellbeing, as well as that of their loved-ones, but will find that employers are taking the government’s lead and dragging their feet on health and safety.

Our first task as a union will therefore be to fight for measures that protect health and safety, both in terms of prevention and of treatment. It will mean uniting academic staff with students, administrative staff, cleaners, security staff, and others to ensure employers take steps to facilitate social distancing; increase staff input in decision-making; allow for work from home; ensure sick pay; provide appropriate equipment to ensure safe work; protect more vulnerable categories of staff like casual workers, those with underlying health conditions, etc; and to prevent racist scapegoating of foreign students and staff.

Such activities can protect us but also strengthen the already existing networks created in the strikes and the trust held by members and staff in the UCU. That in turn would strengthen our hand in our dispute with employers over both pensions and the ‘4 fights’.

Moreover, universities will, like many sectors of the economy, be vulnerable to the wider slowdown immediately triggered by the pandemic. The slowdown in recruitment of international students for the next academic year, to name but one, will open wider questions over the way forward for the sector.

That will inevitably lead to major pressures on some employers in an increasingly market-driven sector.

It will likely also cause more of the flare-ups like the ones we have recently seen when SOAS tried to dump its economic woes on to staff by curbing institutionally-funded research leave and reducing its budget for casual staff. Or when Goldsmiths College reacted to a projected deficit by unilaterally announcing its plan, ‘Evolving Goldsmiths’, which would see such measures as a 15% cut in costs, voluntary redundancies, an expanded senior management team and further centralisation of budgetary control.

Socialists would have to react to such crises by trying to ensure a combative response locally and wider solidarity countrywide. Given the high levels of anger across the sector, and probably increasing levels of social tensions with the worsening effects of the pandemic, explosions are likely and can have an energising effect on broader struggle if local activists can overcome fear and passivity among members.

It is now likely that UCU Congress will be delayed or cancelled, and thereby the question of how to take forward the USS and ‘4 fights’ disputes may be postponed for now, even though we should remain vigilant about attempts by management to ‘normalise’ distance learning or to use Covid-19 to justify further cuts and redundancies. However, what happens in the next few months can also help to shape the terrain when we do continue the discussion (and, of course the ballot) later in the summer or in early autumn when we will have to re-start action and hit start-of-term arrangements.

Moving forward, moreover, the union should take steps to overcome the unevenness of its action so far. A first step would be organising a national conference on the marketization of education, and a national march, jointly with the NUS, to defend education as a public good. Such steps, when the pandemic has passed its peak, would have both an education and mobilisation function.

Equipping members with arguments about how universities could be organised differently and showing strength in numbers – and solidarity which can involve the wider public – are essential prerequisites in arming local activists in preparing their branches (and involving all institutions whether they are currently taking action or not) for future action further down the line.

Furthermore, a clearer set of sector-wide end-goals to the USS dispute and the ‘4 fights’ should be the subject of a wider discussion.

But the baseline is simple: the sector and the country have the money, so we should make sure they are spent on staff and students, not on the stratospheric pay of senior management, shiny new buildings and shady investments on the financial markets. Covid-19 should rightly preoccupy us at the moment (and for the foreseeable future) but there are systemic inequalities in HE that will not disappear anytime soon.


Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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