Industrial Action FAQs

Nationally, the Universities and College Union (UCU) that represents some academic and academic-related staff has announced its intention to hold three days of strike action in December along with up to six months of continuous action short of a strike (ASOS) in the form of working to contract as follows:

  • The three days of strikes will take place on Wednesday 1, Thursday 2 and Friday 3 December 2021
  • The action short of a strike will run until 3 May 2022 and will take the form of staff working their contracted hours and duties and not volunteering for additional duties.

Industrial action FAQs- November 2021

Why are University staff striking?

UCU have decided to strike in response to a range of issues; the disputes are generic across the sector rather than specific to the University of Birmingham.

The decision to ballot for industrial action is immensely disappointing and will inevitably have a disproportionate impact on students who have already faced unprecedented levels of disruption to their education as a result of the pandemic. 

What level of support do UCU have at Birmingham?

Nationally UCU met the threshold for strike action on pay and other issues in 56 out of 146 universities where ballots took place. On USS pensions issues it received a mandate in 37 out of 68 universities where ballots took place, noting that there are 340 organisations that are members of the USS pensions scheme. Based on these numbers there is no national mandate for industrial action.

At Birmingham, UCU did receive a mandate for strike action.  Of some 6000 eligible academic and academic-related staff who could be members of UCU, 482 voted in favour of strike action over pay and 512 in favour of strike action over pensions. 

 It is also worth noting that the USS scheme has 460,000 members across 340 organisations, however, the ballots for industrial action on pensions only took place at 68 and of those and the legal threshold for the vote to be valid was only achieved in 37. 

What has the University done to address the pay issues UCU are taking industrial action over? 

The University has continued to invest in its staff, for example by increasing our expenditure on and contributions to both pay and pensions in recent years and through our work on equality and measures to reduce “casualisation”, both of which relate to progress with UCU’s “four fights”.

For staff on Academic and related contracts, we negotiate nationally on pay, in line with the rest of the sector and have already implemented a 1.5% pay increase as negotiated by UCEA (the Universities and Colleges Employers Association) – the body that negotiates collectively on behalf of universities.  There is no industrial action taking place in two-thirds of the Universities which negotiate nationally on pay, so it is difficult to see that there is any scope to re-open this year’s settlement. UCEA has offered to open talks about next year’s settlement early, which seems a more fruitful way to progress matters.

 For support staff, the University negotiates pay locally with the support staff unions, and we have agreed to implement a 2.5% pay increase. This followed a settlement worth 1.25% in 2019/20 which was at a time when pay for those covered by national negotiations was frozen. To our knowledge, this is the most generous pay settlement in the sector. 

 At the last meeting of the Joint Negotiation and Consultative Committee (JNCC) BUCU were asked if they would like to negotiate pay locally rather than nationally, but they declined. 

What has the University done to address the pensions issues UCU are taking industrial action over?

The University, along with the other employers in the USS scheme, has increased its contributions by 50% over the last 12 years, from 14% to 21.4% of salary from October 2021, including a recent increase of 3.4%, which equates to an additional £15million a year that the University is contributing towards pensions for staff who are members of USS.  We also recognise that employee contributions have also increased and in the same period have moved from 6.35% to 9.8% of salary.

 As a University we have done our best to support any measures or actions which maximise the benefits of what remains a generous pension offering, without additional and unsustainable costs to either members or the University.  This includes being actively supportive of measures to support the sector covenant and thereby reduce the cost of pensions to members. Similarly to pay, on pensions there are more than 340 employers who use the USS pension scheme, with industrial action taking place in only 37 of these, so this is not a matter that we can resolve independently. 

What has the University done to address the other issues UCU are taking industrial action over?

On holiday pay/leave entitlement – we recognise that staff work hard for the University and provide a generous 40 days paid leave a year, which is significantly more than the private sector average. In addition, for the last two years staff have received an additional 2 days of leave (in each leave year) in recognition of the challenges of working during the pandemic.

On equality there is a wide-ranging equality change programme underway which has already addressed some of the concerns that have been raised by UCU.

On progression and career development particularly for early career researchers, the University has recently approved (with support from the local branch of UCU) a new Birmingham Academic Career Framework which invests heavily in support and development for early career academic staff.  Similarly, the Birmingham Professional programme provides a broad programme of training and support for staff working in professional services roles.

Pensions

 

Where can I find out more information about pensions?

General information about pensions provided by independent external experts is available here and a helpful video from the Russell Group is available here.

As part of the USS member consultation, USS have launched a modeller on the consultation website that lets members adjust the figures to reflect different levels of inflation, salary increases, investment returns, and retirement age.

The modeller helps members to see how their benefits and contributions to USS could change as a result of the proposals. We would encourage all USS members to consider their own circumstances when using the modeller and to respond to this important consultation.

What has led to the dispute over pensions?

The pensions sector is heavily regulated and it is a legal requirement for all defined benefit (DB) pension schemes to carry out a valuation at least once every three years in order to assess the financial health and long-term sustainability of the pension scheme.

The Pensions Regulator has mandated that reform needs to take place in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the scheme.

In March 2020, the USS Trustee (which has legal responsibility for ensuring the scheme is sustainable), undertook a valuation of the scheme due to concern over the funding levels.  This valuation calculated that the cost of providing pensions in the future had grown substantially, as had the funding deficit which was estimated to be as high as £17.9 billion. In order to ensure that there is enough money in the scheme to keep paying pensions into the future, the USS Trustee requires much higher salary contributions, which could be as high as 56.2% of salary.

 USS has confirmed that from October 2021 the contribution rates will increase to 21.4% for employers and 9.8% for staff.  Without any changes to the scheme this will increase further to 27.1% for employers and 12.9% for staff by October 2022, with increases every six months until October 2025. Feedback from many employers and scheme members is that current contributions levels are already at the limit of what they can afford. Already one in five people who could join USS have decided not to do so, leaving them without pension cover.  Every time employee contributions have risen more people have opted out and so we believe that it is imperative that a long-term solution is found that is affordable to both members and employers.

Increases to member contributions from the current level of 21.4% of salary to 27.1% next October will force employers to divert more and more money towards pensions, impacting other areas of university spending – such as jobs and student experience.

Since neither employers nor scheme members can afford to pay higher contributions, Universities UK (UUK), the employer representative, developed a package of possible changes to the scheme to bring contributions down to more affordable levels while also meeting the requirements of the Trustee and the Pension Regulator to address the deficit and ensure the scheme was sustainable.  In order to try and find a workable solution there has been a prolonged period of negotiation over the summer between employers (represented by UUK) and UCU at the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC). 

On 31 August 2021 the JNC and its Independent Chair, decided in favour of UUK’s proposals. This decision means changes would be made to the scheme, subject to consultation with the scheme’s membership, ahead of finalising the 2020 valuation. With these changes made, decent pension benefits can continue to be provided in return for contributions of 31.2% of salaries, which is close to the current contribution rate of 30.7% of salaries, and substantially lower than the contribution rate of up to 40% (12.9% for employees and 27.1% for employers) next year (and further increases after that) that the USS Trustee previously said were necessary if no changes were made.

UCU have continued to suggest that they have an alternative solution, but have not shared this with either UUK or their members. If and when this alternative solution is published, UUK have made it clear that they will consider it seriously and consult with employers on any proposals put forward.

It is important to note that there are substantial areas of agreement between UUK and UCU.  For example, there is a strong joint commitment to develop a lower cost pension that would help reverse the high rates of opt-out by early career or lower paid staff, for example through investigating other options to control contribution levels in future, such as conditional indexation, flexible contributions and benefits. There is also a strong, shared commitment to a fundamental review of the governance of USS to ensure that everyone can be confident that it is well-managed in the interests of its members.

In the meantime, however, it is imperative that the immediate challenges are resolved.  If the current proposals are not implemented, the rise in contributions, due to be effective next year, will be unaffordable for the University and for the majority of individual members of the scheme.

Industrial action

What industrial action will UCU be taking?

Birmingham UCU have confirmed that they will be taking industrial action in the form of strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS) in the form of working to contract, i.e. only working their contracted hours and duties and not volunteering to do more.

When are the strike days?

UCU have notified the University that they will be taking strike action for the period 1 – 3 December 2021 inclusive.

What will happen on strike days?

On each strike day a number of staff members are likely to refuse to attend work or perform their duties – which may result in cancelled teaching 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 legitimate protest. The University respects the rights of union members to take legitimate strike action, alongside those who do not wish to do so. The University expects the views and wishes of all staff and students to be respected.

When will ASOS take place?

UCU have confirmed that the period of Action Short of a Strike (ASOS) will commence on 1 December 2021 on an indefinite basis until the expiry of their mandate for industrial action, which is 3 May 2022.

What form of ASOS will UCU be taking?

UCU have confirmed that their members will be working strictly to contract, meaning that they will only be working their contracted hours and duties and not volunteering to do more than that.

The University’s priority will be to minimise the impact of strike action on student learning, outcomes and experience. Schools and Departments have been working hard to ensure that any disruptions to education are minimised as far as possible. As a consequence, the University will prioritise teaching and assessment over other duties and responsibilities. 

Will there be any other forms of ASOS?

If UCU intend to take any other forms of ASOS, other than working to contract, then they are legally required to inform the University. Should this occur, these FAQs will be updated accordingly with any other forms of ASOS that UCU have notified the University that will be taken.

Can staff based overseas take industrial action?

Staff based overseas who may be contemplating taking industrial action, are advised to consider the local laws and customs of the country within which they are based, some of which (for example, Dubai) ban engagement with strike action, or work stoppages of any kind.


Picket lines

 

What is a picket line?

A picket line is the term used for a gathering of staff who are on strike. It is common for people on picket lines to 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 from accessing campus as usual. ‘Crossing a picket line’ simply means that a person is going about their normal business on campus and should not be subjected to any criticism for passing a picket line.

Members of the University community can of course engage with those on the picket line and listen to their views but should not be put under any pressure to avoid crossing a picket line. It is a criminal offence for pickets to use abusive behaviour to people walking past, or crossing the picket line, or to block people or vehicles trying to get into the workplace.  It is important to note that the vast majority of the University community is working as normal and will be crossing picket lines.

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 an individual passes through the campus entrances they are on private university land where picketing is not allowed. 

What will happen if I choose not to cross a picket line?

Any members of staff who choose not to cross a picket line, i.e. who take strike action, will have 100% of their pay withheld for each day that they strike.

Will I still be able to get to work?

Yes, picket lines are not allowed on University premises, but are likely to be held at, or near entrances to campus. Whilst you may have to cross a picket line to get to your place of work, you should not be put under any pressure to avoid crossing a picket line. It is a criminal offence for pickets to use abusive behaviour to people walking past, or crossing the picket line, or to block people or vehicles trying to get into the workplace. It is also important to remember that the vast majority of the University community is working as normal.

How will the industrial strike action affect me?

Unless you are taking industrial action, you should attend work as normal. If you are on campus you will be able to access your place of work as you normally would. If any of your colleagues are taking industrial action, it is possible that your line manager will ask you to provide cover in critical areas to ensure that any disruption to the University’s services to both students and staff are as minimised as possible.

Pay

Will my pay be affected if I take strike action?

Any members of staff who choose to take strike action, will have 100% of their pay withheld for each day that they strike. Pay will be withheld at the rate of 1/365. 

Will my pay be deducted if I take ASOS in the form of working to contract?

There will be no pay withheld for any members of staff working to contract, provided that they are not in breach of their contract – i.e., that they are fulfilling their contractual hours and duties and respond to reasonable management requests to prioritise their workload in such a manner to minimise the impact of industrial action on student learning, outcomes and experience. 

What will happen to my pension contributions if I take strike action and/or ASOS amounting to a breach of contract?

An employer is not obliged to make pension contributions for a member of staff who is taking strike action and/or ASOS which amounts to a breach of contract. In order for pension contributions to be maintained, both the employer and employee contributions must be made.

The University has determined therefore, on an exceptional basis, that it will make both the employer and employee pension contributions for any member of staff who takes strike action and/or ASOS which amounts to a breach of contract. 

Recording strike action and/or ASOS

How should strike action and/or ASOS be recorded?

Any staff taking either strike action and/or ASOS are required to record their action directly via Core Systems (accessible here via Core Systems) following the steps outlined below:

  1. Log into Core Systems
  2. Under ‘Me’ select ‘add absence’
  3. Click on ‘type’ and a list of absences appear, select absence type ‘strike’ or ‘action short of a strike’
  4. Enter dates of absence and click ‘submit’

 

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