University Strike FAQs

You may be aware that some academics and academic-related staff are planning more strikes following those that took place in November and December last year. Again, this strike has been called by UCU and will take place on the following dates:

  • Thursday 20, and Friday 21 February
  • Monday 24, Tuesday 25, and Wednesday 26 February
  • Monday 2, Tuesday 3, Wednesday 4, and Thursday 5 March
  • Monday 9, Tuesday 10, Wednesday 11, Thursday 12, and Friday 13 March

We are disappointed that UCU has taken this decision given that significant progress had been made with talks to try to bring the dispute to an end.

During the previous industrial action in November 2019 the vast majority of timetabled sessions continued as normal and many students saw no disruption to their studies, however the level of impact did vary for different courses and Schools. The most obvious and immediate impact upon some of you, on some courses, will potentially be the cancelling of timetabled sessions on the relevant strike dates. Academic staff who strike do not have to inform the university in advance that they are striking and so we will not always be able to inform you that this is going to happen.

We understand that the prospect of academic staff striking might cause you some concern and would like to reassure you that we will be doing everything we can to minimise the impact of any strike action on you and your studies. Your Academic School will be putting in place additional support to ensure your queries are answered as quickly as possible. It is important to remember that all staff – including those who are taking strike action – will be concerned about impact on their students.  We understand that the possibility of strike action at this time may be of particular concern to final year and PGT students and we are currently putting measures in place to ensure that strike action will not unduly affect anyone’s ability to graduate.

A reminder: please check your University emails frequently, and also Canvas. We will update this FAQ page regularly, and Schools will wish to contact you if they receive specific local information about strike action that could affect you.

The questions below are Frequently Asked Questions on the strike.  They will be updated as more questions are sent in so please refer back to this page for further information.  Topics include:

Questions about why the strike is happening

Why are University staff striking?

The strikes are about two on-going national disputes – one is around pay and conditions and the other is about changes to the USS pension scheme – both of which can only be settled at national level, which means that individual universities like ours have little or no local influence on the outcomes.

It is disappointing that the strikes are happening again because there has been positive progress since the last strikes in the discussions between universities nationally (as employers) and the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) to address important issues. This includes elements of the pay claim around employment (including casual employment, workload and mental health, and the gender pay gap), as well as on-going constructive discussions about the future of the USS pension scheme, involving unions, employers and USS. The positive tone of these discussions, which have been focused on building a common understanding of the future of the scheme, the 2020 valuation, and governance issues, does not seem to have been reflected in UCU’s latest call for action.

We are disappointed that UCU has taken this decision given that significant progress had been made with talks to try to bring the dispute to an end. In the case of pensions, discussions are already scheduled to continue until at least March.

Pensions are a complex issue. Find out more information about the background to, and to understand the industrial action.

Our position at Birmingham

In line with other universities, at Birmingham we want to provide a work environment where all people feel valued and are treated fairly and with respect. We have been working very hard on addressing those areas that are in our control for the last year, including casualisation, staff workload, and an action plan to close the gender pay gap. All staff have received the nationally agreed pay increase, which was paid from August 2019.

We are keen to accelerate progress, working with other universities, and national bodies like the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), to agree a range of positive proposals around these important issues.

What is the issue with pensions – why doesn’t the University just pay more?

The University is one of a large number of universities across the country who are part of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension. Part of the dispute with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) is about proposed changes nationally to the amount that staff who are members of the scheme contribute towards their pensions.

The USS is a private pension scheme which is currently in deficit - this means that there are concerns that it will not be able to fund the expected level of pensions now and into the future unless more money is paid in or the amount of benefit that people get when they retire is reduced. Through the UCU union, staff who are members of USS have already advised that they do not want to reduce the amount of pension benefit they would get when they retire, which means the only other option is to increase the amount that is paid in.

At the request of UCU a number of years ago, any additional money being paid in contributions to the USS pension is split between the member of staff and the employer at a ratio 35:65 respectively, with the employer (university) paying the larger share.

As a result pension contributions will increase from 18% to 21.1% for employing universities and from 8.8% to 9.6% for staff who are scheme members. The University agrees that staff should have a good and sustainable pension and, along with other universities, has already agreed to increase the amount that employers are contributing in order to protect the current level of benefit that staff receive when they retire.

This latest increase in employer contributions means that since 2014 employer contributions to USS have risen from 14% to 21.1%. As a result the University is spending an additional £14million per year on pension contributions for staff, with the latest increase costing an additional £6million this year. This level of employer contribution is very high for a private pension scheme and the additional funding to support pensions also reduces the level of investment the University is able to make in our people and facilities which support students’ and our research and civic activities. If you would like to find out more about the background to the pensions dispute please visit the intranet site or the USS Employers website.

What will happen to the pay that lecturers won't recieve?

We have agreed that any net “savings” due to strike pay deductions will be re-invested for students and we are working with the Guild to agree how this money may be spent to best meet your needs.

Will I be entitled to a refund or compensation for any missed activities?

Our response to the industrial action is focussed on seeking to mitigate any impact by providing alternative ways in which any content can be delivered and considering the whole of the teaching and learning experience. 

In the circumstances, and having reviewed matters carefully, the University will not be providing a fee refund, or financial reimbursement generally, to students where adequate and reasonable steps have been taken to replace lost learning opportunities. For many UK/EU students such a payment would be made to Student Finance England and so would not be immediately beneficial in any case.

However where a student has incurred significant additional cost as a result of rearranged teaching (e.g. for additional travel, or child care), we will consider requests for re-imbursement, subject to necessary supporting evidence. 

Are staff and students permitted to hold protests and rallies on campus?

YES. The University is absolutely committed to the principles of freedom of speech.

Strike action and the rights to establish a picket line are different and are governed by a legal framework – meaning that striking workers are not permitted to be inside the premises of their place of work and the picket line should be outside or off the premises. These are the rules that govern all strike action.  We also have to consider the rights of those staff and students who do not wish to participate in the strike action and are equally entitled to go about their daily business. Protests and rallies on the campus, by staff and students, do have to seek permission and again this is normal practice. Approval is required so that the safety and security of our students, staff and visitors can be considered. Conditions may be applied so that any protest is legitimate and lawful and applications for an event must be received in a timely way.  In the last two years the University has considered more than 1500 events and activities under its Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech on Campus and none have been rejected. At no time during the recent period of industrial action did Birmingham UCU make an application, under the code, to hold a protest or rally on campus.

What is 'Action Short of a Strike'?

ASOS is also commonly known as “work to contract” meaning that academic and academic-related staff who are taking ASOS will carry out all of their contractual duties, but no more. So, these staff will work to their notional hours of 37.5 hours a week, and no longer. It is unlikely that you will see any significant impact on your studies as a result of ASOS because staff are still required to fulfil their contractual duties, and the University will also ask all staff to prioritise teaching and assessment over all other duties and responsibilities.

As ever, our priority will be to minimise the impact of the recent strike action on student learning, outcomes and experience. In the coming days, your School/Department will be working hard to ensure that any disruptions to your education are mitigated in the most appropriate and practical ways. 

 Questions about strike days including picket lines

What will happen on strike days?

On each strike day a number of academic staff members are likely to refuse to attend work or perform their duties – which may result in cancelled sessions. The University will, however, be open and operating otherwise normally, including the Main Library, all study spaces and other services across the campus.  

A strike by staff is a rare but entirely legitimate protest within a dispute over pay and conditions. The University respects the rights of Union members to take legitimate strike action, alongside those staff members who do not want to take strike action. The pending strike action is lawful and we would expect all of our colleagues to treat each other and students with respect.

We would also expect that a majority of teaching and timetabled events will continue as scheduled. When you come onto campus you may pass members of staff at the entrances to campus who are carrying signs, handing out leaflets and talking to people about the reasons for the strike.

What is a picket line?

You are likely to encounter picket lines at some of the entrances to campus. A picket line will be made up of staff who are on strike, and they may wish to hand out leaflets or explain why they are on strike. Staff on a picket line cannot prevent other members of the University community (other staff, students or visitors) who are not on strike from accessing the campus as usual. ‘Crossing a picket line’ simply means that you are going about your normal business on campus. You should not be subject to any criticism for passing a picket line on your way to study, play sport or take part in social activities.

By law, picket lines are only allowed on public land, for example on the public paths at the entrances to campus, and not on private land within that area. This means that once you pass through the campus entrances you are on private university land where picketing is not allowed. You may see rallies taking place on campus because the university does recognise the importance of peaceful demonstration and has agreed to a number of union rallies taking place during the period of strike action. You can of course engage with those on the picket line and listen to their views, but you should not be put under any pressure to avoid crossing a picket line. Pickets in the previous strike action were not threatening and it is a criminal offence for pickets to use abusive behavior to people walking past, or crossing the picket line, or to block people or vehicles trying to get into the workplace.  Remember, the vast majority of the University community is working as normal.

Can I cross a picket line?

As a student you can, of course, choose not to cross a picket line, but you will need to consider and take responsibility for the precise impact that this decision may have on your own studies. For example it would not be considered as an extenuating circumstance if your learning was impacted as a result of your decision not to cross the picket line and, therefore, not to attend lectures and seminars. 

The University will not make any arrangements to replace sessions that are running normally so you should be aware of this is you decide not to attend them. 

Is going to the sports centre or sports training crossing a picket line?

You may have to cross a picket line to access any of the facilities on central campus, depending where UCU decides to deploy pickets on any given day.

By law, picket lines are only allowed on public land, for example at the entrances to campus, and not on private land within that area. We cannot at present say where pickets will be, although they are not allowed on campus nor to target specific buildings.

UCU have, in the past, picketed all main entrances to campus. Staff on a picket line cannot prevent other members of the University community (other staff, students or visitors) who are not on strike from accessing the campus as usual. ‘Crossing a picket line’ simply means that you are going about your normal business on campus. You should not be subject to any criticism for passing a picket line on your way to study, play sport or take part in social activities.

Can postgraduate teaching assistants go on strike/take part in industrial action?

Yes, anyone employed by the University has a right to take strike action, whether or not they are a member of the trade union which has called the dispute, although they will not be paid for any absence due to strike action.

Will there be rallies on campus during the strike period?

Yes, UCU have been granted permission to hold a number of rallies on campus in line with our Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech on Campus.

These are subject to restrictions such as being confined to an area by the North Gate; that noise must be kept to a minimum and respect must be shown to students studying (e.g. in the Library or Teaching and Learning Building); that no amplified music or loudhailers should be used; that conduct and language used must be appropriate and must not include any harassment or intimidation (this includes leaflets); and that the organisers must respond quickly to any requests made from any member of the University management, for example due to an emergency, or in response to student complaints about noise.

Rallies will be held on the following days:

Thursday 20 February, 11.00

Tuesday 25 February, 11.00

Wednesday 26 February, 11.00

Monday 2 March, 11.00

Tuesday 3 March, 11.00

Thursday 5 March, 12.00

Monday 9 March, 12.00

Tuesday 10 March, 11.00

Thursday 12 March, 11.00

Friday 13 March, 12.00

Questions about the impact of the strike on your academic work

How will my timetable be affected? 

At the current time we do not know which individual staff members will take direct strike action. Your lecturer might tell you in advance that they either will or will not be teaching on a strike day but the legal position is that they are not obliged to tell the University in advance. This means that you may not find out about any cancellations until the day the session is due to take place. The University will make every reasonable effort to contact students in advance about any changes or cancellations and primary communications will come to students via their subject/school.

Should I turn up to timetabled events anyway?

Yes, you should. While the strike may be disruptive for some it will not affect every student and every course. We anticipate that the majority of sessions will continue as normal. If you have travelled to the University and a session is cancelled unexpectedly, then you can always study in the main library or in one of the many study spaces for that period.

Find a study space

What if my timetabled session is cancelled?

The University will make every effort to make alternative arrangements for any cancelled events, including lectures, seminars, individual appointments, lab sessions etc. This might include scheduling additional sessions at other times and making supporting materials available that you can review through Canvas. This will help to ensure that you do not miss any of the essential content for your course. If you have any specific concerns about particularly important laboratory work or other time-sensitive activities, then you should contact your Head of School.

Can I access Panopto recorded lectures during the Strike?

We ask all staff to record their lectures as a matter of routine because students tell us they value these recordings as study/revision aides. For some students these recordings are particularly valuable; for example, those with English as a second language, a disability, and those who might need to miss sessions due to chronic illness or caring responsibilities. 

At Birmingham, we have a Code of Practice that asks all staff to record their lectures but if they are unwilling to do so, they can provide an alternative set of materials that would support student learning equally well.

Our Code of Practice states clearly that lecture recordings will only be used with the permission of the lecturer. In the case of this industrial action, we will ask those lecturers who are on strike if they are willing to make recordings available to help their students. This will, however, be an individual decision for lecturers. Remember, the majority of academic staff will not be on strike.

How will we make up lost teaching?

Once the strike action has ended, Heads of School will ask all lecturers to prioritise the recovery of teaching above all their other normal activities. Teaching will be recovered in a variety of ways as appropriate to the discipline, the amount to be recovered and the timing of assessments. Your academic School will be providing details once they have more information about which students have been affected.

I am an international student with a Tier 4 Visa – how will this affect me?

Some international students are required to have their attendance and engagement monitored as part of their visa conditions.  Do not worry. You should always plan to attend every scheduled session and any specific check-ins but if any of these are cancelled, we will make alternative arrangements to make sure your attendance record is kept up to date and there is no impact on your visa conditions.

I am a postgraduate taught student - how will this affect me?

We will work very hard to ensure that any disruption does not adversely affect your completion or graduation. We will closely monitor the impact of strike action across modules and programmes and we will ensure that students are not disadvantaged in pursuit of their postgraduate studies. For all students, at any level, there are specific mitigating actions we can take within our regulations and under our emergency powers to ensure the successful completion of your degree. If you do have any specific concerns about the progress of your studies you should contact your Head of School in the first instance.

What about assessments and exams?

We will ensure that you are not disadvantaged in any assessment activity. Hand-in dates and deadlines may be extended if these are affected by any cancelled teaching and you will not be assessed on any content that has not been covered due to disruption. Where any content or assessment of learning outcomes is aligned with professional body accreditation, we will ensure that this content is covered within rearranged sessions.  

Please note: you should assume that any assessment deadlines already set will remain in place and work to these accordingly, including any scheduled in-class tests. You will be informed in good time if there are any deadline changes. 

What happens if my monthly PhD supervision is cancelled as a result of strike action?

If you are scheduled to have a supervisory meeting over the duration of the strike, some or all of your supervisory team may not attend, and you may not receive advance warning of this.  In such an event, please do not worry about compliance with monthly supervision forms (GRS2) or about the underlying Tier 4 visa monitoring. Our records will note that your supervisor was striking, and that the absence of the meeting was beyond your control. It would be a good idea in these circumstances to email your supervisors and request a new meeting date (be mindful that they may not reply until after the strike action has ended), and to contact your School or Department administrator to let them know that a meeting has been missed. If you have any questions or concerns in the meantime, staff at the University Graduate School will be here to help. They can be contacted either face to face (on weekdays between 09:00 and 17:00) by visiting Westmere, or by email (graduateschool@contacts.bham.ac.uk)

Can I still contact my Lecturer / Personal Academic Tutor / Supervisor or other staff?

Yes. You can contact staff as you would normally do, although for staff taking strike action there may be a delay in them responding to you. If you have an urgent academic query you can always contact your Department or School office.

Questions about where to go for further information, support, or to make a complaint.

Who can I contact for more information?

If you have any other queries that you think we should add to our frequently asked questions then please let us know by e-mail to:  strikeconcerns@contacts.bham.ac.uk

If you would like to contact your college, please see college contact details below.

Can I contact anyone else for support or wellbeing advice?

If you are concerned about the impact of any strike action on your wellbeing then you can always contact the Wellbeing Officer for your School. 
Find your Wellbeing Officer

Support from Student Services and the Aston Webb Student Hub will be available throughout the strike period.

Your wellbeing

The Guild of Students also operates an independent advice service.
Find out more about Guild Advice

Can I make a complaint?

Yes. If you are dissatisfied with any aspect of the University’s services you always have the option to raise a formal complaint.

Further information about the complaints process  

We are very sorry that you may experience some disruption during the strike period. The vast majority of staff will be working hard to ensure that any impact on the student experience and your learning and teaching is minimised.

Colleges

Professional Services