Dear all, Over recent weeks, I have received a lot of emails from students expressing anxiety about the impact of the eighteen days of UCU strike action that are currently underway, as well as support and sympathy for the staff who are taking the action. Your elected student representatives have also shared their support and sympathy for staff who are taking action, in line with the official Students’ Union position supporting this industrial action.
It is likely that a lot of you who have not contacted me will have the same concerns and questions, since, even though the majority of staff are not participating in strike action and most students are not affected directly, the dispute is visible around campus and is something that a lot of students care about. Because of that, I thought it would be useful to extend this conversation to the whole student community.
Perhaps the most important thing for me to say first is that I understand why some staff feel so strongly about these issues that they are striking and why a lot of students support them. Many of us in the sector agree that salaries need to improve and that the proposed increases to the USS pension scheme are largely unaffordable. This has long been UCL’s position.
The obvious answer to that is ’so pay staff more and restore the pension so that we can put these strikes behind us’. Unfortunately, the situation is not so straightforward and, particularly in the case of pay and pensions, not within UCL’s direct control. I wanted to use this message to explain where things currently stand, what the challenges are and how we intend to manage the situation to reduce the effects on students.
So, to recap, the current strike action is focused on the issues of pay, the USS pension scheme and wider issues related to workload, equality and job security. .
Staff payPay in the university sector is set through national bargaining, meaning that all universities must agree on the same pay offer, and UCL is just one voice amongst around 140. Over the past year pay offers have been made, considered by the unions and ultimately rejected.
Within the bargaining process, UCL is amongst those arguing for a higher pay offer, but it must be affordable for all universities. Other institutions state that the latest rejected offer is at the limit of what they can afford and that they cannot go any higher without considerable damage to the education that they offer and their student experience. That is in the context of a real terms reduction in funding for universities over the past 10 years, while all costs have risen.
Where we can act independently of national bargaining we have done so, for example by increasing the London Allowance and extending the number of staff who receive it; we are also an official London Living Wage employer. Crucially, this applies equally to outsourced and directly employed staff (another issue I know many students care about) and all outsourced staff at UCL are employed under the same terms and key conditions as in-house staff.
Unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents universities in the pay bargaining process, are now entering negotiations with the assistance of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) in the hope of finding a solution. I really hope that this can help us find a way forward that works for all universities, and we will keep staff and students up to date with progress.
PensionsSimilarly, on the subject of the USS pension, this is not a scheme run, managed or owned by UCL and therefore we do not have the ability to make decisions or enact change, though we have lobbied strenuously for fair benefits for staff. We are on record as being one of the few institutions pushing for a new valuation of the scheme, and we continue to press for a review of the scheme’s governance and consideration of a number of ways in which the scheme could become more affordable and accessible.
We opposed proposals that would have significantly increased the costs of being a member of the scheme, and we very much hope that the next valuation of the scheme in March this year will demonstrate that it is in a positive position and that the benefits structure for staff can therefore be improved. It should be noted that the USS has to meet the requirements of a Government pensions regulator, which will insist that the scheme demonstrates long-term sustainability. Within this challenging situation, we will continue to be a strong voice pushing for the best possible outcomes for staff.
Other issuesWorkload, job security and equality are also key concerns for staff, and these are all issues that we are addressing within the financial constraints in which we are operating. One example of activity that is making a difference is our Teaching Concordat, launched in 2020, which created new rules of employment for teaching staff and has significantly reduced use of fixed-term contracts for teaching staff and moved the majority of Postgraduate Teaching Assistants (PGTAs) from hourly payment onto full-time equivalent (FTE) contracts.
You can see all the ways in which we are trying to address the issues of concern here.
Most staff are not on strike and UCL is openWhat I hear from students is that you are stuck in the middle and really frustrated. You know staff are not striking against you as individual students, but you are the ones suffering from the disruption. This is made worse because you have already experienced so much disruption from Covid, and you just want things to get back to normal. I really get that and we really are doing everything possible to find resolutions that are fair to staff and students across the sector.
While these strikes continue, we are all doing everything we can to minimise how you are affected and make sure you are supported. The campus is always open as usual on strike days and remember that the majority of staff are not taking part in strikes, so please do not automatically assume that your learning activities will be cancelled. Your department will do everything it can to inform you about changes so please monitor your UCL emails and Moodle.
Exams and assessmentsWith the Central Assessment period fast approaching, I know some of you might be concerned about the impact on your examinations and assessments. Your examination timetable will be published on Monday 27 February, and you should assume these exams are going ahead, unless your department tells you otherwise.
In some small cases, the way in which you are assessed might differ from what is stated on your timetable, for example, an examination might become a piece of coursework, or another alternative form of assessment. In instances like these, this will be communicated directly to you.
We pledge that you will not be assessed on academic content that has not been taught due to industrial action, so that your educational outcomes are not affected by these strikes. We will also issue guidance to examination boards to ensure that disruption is taken into account when considering the individual graduation and progression profiles of affected students. No one at UCL, very much including striking staff, wishes to harm your educational outcomes.
We have put together full information for students and Q&As , which are being updated on a rolling basis, so please do keep an eye on that and submit your question if it is not already covered.
I am really sorry that your education may be affected by strike action. We are working really hard to resolve this situation for everyone and to minimise the impact on your studies. I hope this message helps to explain some of the complexities of the situation we are all in and would welcome your feedback.
UCL President and Provost
- University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000