This is a Q&A compiled by the Sussex Students’ Union intended to provide factual and practical information for our students about the UCU Industrial Action.
On Monday 22 January, University and College Union (UCU), which is the largest trade union for University Staff in the UK, announced that their members will take part in 14 days of industrial action to protest against proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme, which the majority of University staff are enrolled in. This will take place on 61 Universities across the UK, including the University of Sussex.
We want to thank the Edinburgh University Students’ Association from which this Q&A page is adapted, and the students whose questions we’ve included in here.
Q. Who are the people that are striking?
Members of UCU, a trade union for University staff. Members of UCU are typically academics and postgraduate students that teach, but it also includes professional services staff such as the library and support services teams.
Not all academics and postgraduates are members of UCU, and some UCU members may decide that they don’t want to join the strike. The academics and postgraduates that aren’t joining the strike will continue to carry out their normal work.
By law, UCU members that are intending to take part in the strike do not have to let their students or the University know in advance.
Q. How long is the industrial action or strike going to be on for?
The dates for industrial action at Sussex from UCU are as follows:
Week 1 - Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
Week 2 - Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
Week 3 - Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
Week 4 - Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)
You can find more information about this here.
If a resolution is found at any point then some of these dates may no longer go ahead. Additionally, if no resolution has been found by the middle of March, after the 14 days of industrial action ends, further strikes or action short of a strike may be announced in the future.
What is industrial action, and what does it look like?
Q. What is industrial action?
Industrial action is action taken by employees as a protest which can, for example, take the form of either a strike or action short of a strike.
Q. What is a strike?
A strike is a refusal to work organised by a body of employees as a form of protest, usually in an attempt to achieve change. This can at times take the form of a picket line, where workers and union reps (‘picketers’ or ‘pickets’) stand outside a workplace to tell other people why they are striking.
Q. How does a strike take place in practice?
A strike involves the workers withholding their labour. In this case it will most likely mean disruption to teaching and research within departments, and possibly to University services if staff members are on strike. There may be picket lines outside university buildings during the strike. Find out more here.
Q. Can I go past a picket line and into University buildings?
A picket line is where workers and union reps (‘picketers’ or ‘pickets’) stand outside a workplace to tell other people why they are striking.
In short, yes, you may go past a picket line. This may be seen by those on the picket line as not supporting their action but they are likely to still be friendly and may try to talk to you about the industrial action.
Picketers may ask people not to do some of their usual work or go in to work in an act of solidarity for their cause but it is down to each individual to decide what they feel comfortable doing. Pickets must not prevent people from going to work or doing their usual work if they want to do so. Find out more here.
People on the picket lines understand that the University campus is also home to a large number of students and that they need to access services like the health centre.
Q. What can I do if I want to support the strike?
There are a variety of ways you can support the strike, and these are just a few suggestions to take into account if you decide to support it. You can talk to your tutors, lecturers and supervisors to understand why they are striking and ask them how you can support them.
If you want to do academic work, do it from home or go to a cafe or public library. Alternatively, come to Falmer House and use the space here for peer led or private study. UCU have said they are keen for Falmer House to be excluded from picketing.
UCU have produced a poster that is specifically for students and contains some information. You can find that here.
If you are interested in getting involved on a local level, you can find a student-led campaign called Sussex Supports the UCU here and you can join their campaigning group here. Their advice on how to support is here.
Effect on Students
Q. What impact will the industrial action have on students?
It is difficult to say exactly how the industrial action will impact on you. The impact will depend on your level of study, number of contact hours you have, if the industrial action coincides with any deadlines or assessments, and on which staff members decide to participate in the strike on the day.
It could also depend on the length of the industrial action. It is currently scheduled to take place over a four week period, but if UUK and UCU reach an agreement before then, the strike may be shortened. Alternatively, if the two organisations are unable to reach an agreement, the industrial action may be extended.
If this happens, the Students’ Union will update this FAQ page to ensure that students are informed about the changes to the situation.
Bus drivers typically choose not to cross the picket line so bus services may well not serve the campus and use the stop on the A27 opposite Falmer station instead.
Q. What can I do to limit the impact it will have on me?
We encourage you to gain as much information as possible about the upcoming industrial action, and how it will specifically impact you. You can contact your lecturers, academic advisors and school departments with your academic questions. You can also your Students’ Union elected representatives - such as student reps or full-time elected officers - if you are worried about any of your deadlines, assessments or important labs/lectures etc.
Q. How will the strike affect Postgraduate Research students?
Your supervision may be affected by the strike. Please contact your supervisor or the leader of your research group to get more information about the impact on your research.
If you are employed by the university (e.g. teaching undergraduates), you should contact UCU to get more information about your rights and duties.
If you are an enrolled postgraduate student contracted to teach in UK higher education institutions you are entitled to free membership of UCU. You can join here.
Q. How will the strike affect Postgraduate Taught students?
Students should contact their school office if they are worried about the impact the strike will have on their course of study. Some departmental teaching may be affected and this may include PGT students.
Q. How will the strike affect Undergraduate students?
It may affect teaching in departments, such as lectures and classes. Depending on the length of the strike this could also mean that there will be an impact on marking. At this stage, we cannot say which departments will be affected as it depends which staff participate in the industrial action.
Q. Should I still show up to the lectures, labs and exams I have scheduled?
This is up to you. If the strike goes ahead some lectures will most likely be cancelled as lecturers take part in the strike. The University will attempt to let students know of any cancelled lectures due to strike as and when they know.
Not attending scheduled lectures that go ahead over the course of the industrial action may have academic consequences, particularly any assessments or mandatory aspects, and/or other consequences such as affecting your visa. You can contact the Student Life Centre or your academic advisor if you would like to know what impact not attending may have for you.
Some students will choose not to go to campus on the dates of the industrial action to show support of the striking staff members.
Q. Do my deadlines still stand?
Deadlines may be moved, but we would advise working to all deadlines you have unless you hear otherwise from your School. If you are worried about your deadlines, we encourage you to contact your academic advisor, student rep and/or Student Union officers.
Q. Can I use the library and other facilities as normal?
Updates on any disrupted services will be communicated by the university. There may be picket lines outside of faculties or libraries.
Pickets must not prevent people from going to work or doing their usual work if they want to do so. However, crossing picket lines to use facilities in departments or libraries could be perceived as not being in support of the strikers.
It is up to each individual student to choose what they feel comfortable in doing. If you want to show support for the striking staff members please see the question ‘What can I do if I want to support the strike?’.
Q. Will counselling services be affected?
UCU have communicated that they have a policy not to disrupt what they call ‘clinical services’, this includes counselling, so we understand that the counselling service will not be affected by the strike.
How will the industrial action impact me?
How the industrial action impacts you will depend on many factors, including your course of study, year of study, and whether your lecturers have chosen to take part in the industrial action. I’d encourage you to speak to those around you to understand how this will affect you. You can contact your school office, course convenors and student reps - they should be able to answer some of your questions.
You might already know if your lecturers are planning to take part in the industrial action. They might have already informed you, either in lecturers or via email, and many lecturers will be happy to discuss the industrial action and the reasons why it is going ahead. Please note, though, that your lecturers do not have to tell you whether they will be taking part in the industrial action or not. You can always send them an email or go to their office hour, and ask them what they think, but remember that you can’t demand an answer.
How the industrial action affects you will also depend on whether you are part of or hope to soon be part of the USS pension scheme. If the UCU’s projections for pension changes are correct, those most detrimentally affected by these changes will be starting academics - many of which are currently PGT, PGR and AT students. If you are a PG student worried about the future of your pensions, we encourage you to get in contact with the University’s HR or UCU Sussex. PG students can also contact the Students’ Union’s own PG Education Officer, Sarah McIntosh, at email@example.com.
International students worried about how this industrial strike will affect them can contact the International Support Unit at Sussex, get in contact with their academic advisor or send an email to the Student Union Officers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will I be compensated? If so, how?
Because of the significant disruption of teaching that 4 weeks of industrial action will cause, many UG students are wondering if they will be compensated. Students are paying significant amounts to study at Universities in the UK, expecting to be taught x weeks over the course of the year. As striking lecturers will not be paid for days they chose to partake in the strike, students are wondering what will happen with the money docked from striking lecturers’ pay.
Across the country, students have started petitions asking that their Universities pay a certain sum back for each contact hour lost. However, a recent piece from HE Research has outlined that the legal possibility for students to be compensated for time lost is not as straightforward as many students think. There is also a petition going around the University of Sussex asking that money docked from lecturers pay due to the strike is ring fenced in a hardship fund for students. The University has, however, said that they are unlikely to have resources to set up such a fund because of the considerable pressure put on them due to the length of the strike.
Any students interested in starting a campaign to refund students due to the industrial strike can organise for their cause. You can start a petition, find other students with the same aim and contact a Student Union Officer for support and advice. You can also get in contact with the students organising the petition to ring fence funds here.
Will my deadlines change? What will happen to my final marks?
We are working really hard to make sure no student is disadvantaged in their assessments and exams due to the industrial action, as it is a priority and worry for many of our students. If you have any specific deadlines or assessments that you think will be significantly impacted due to the industrial action, we encourage you to contact your Student Rep, Head of School and Student Union Officers.
Will there be material for me to study?
This, again, depends on your course and level of study. The Students’ Union has encouraged the UCU to speak to their members about uploading resources on Study Direct so that students can continue to study over the course of the industrial action. However, lecturers are under no obligation to do this. We encourage you to contact your course convenor, student rep or head of school with questions about this.
We also realise the possibility for own studies depends on what courses your studying; many humanities students will be able to study at home to a greater extent than many science students will. Contact your student reps and head of school if you have any questions about how your labs, or other tutor-led study sessions, might be affected by the industrial action.
Can I come to campus on strike days?
Whether or not you come to campus on strike days is up to you. Many students will chose not to come to campus so as to not cross picket lines on campus. A picket line is where workers and union reps, ‘picketers’ or ‘pickets’, stand outside a workplace to tell other people why they are striking. Walking past these pickets to get onto campus will be seen by some students and lecturers as not supporting their cause or action, but if you chose or have to get to campus they are not allowed to keep you from doing that.
Many striking staff members will of course also understand that there are reasons why students and staff go to campus on strike days, and will most likely be friendly to anyone who does. The Students’ Union will remain open over the industrial strike, as will most professional services, buildings and outlets on campus.
When will I know if my lectures are cancelled?
This will depend on your lecturers and course convenors. Lecturers partaking in the industrial action do not have to let their students know that their lectures or seminars are canceled, although many are choosing to inform their students in advance. The Students’ Union Officers are concerned about the impact this may have on students, especially in terms of cost for commuting for those living far away, and are encouraging the UCU to be as transparent as possible with our students about the industrial action. Please note that students will not be penalised for not attending lectures canceled due to strike.
Should I show up to lectures that aren’t cancelled?
This, just as always, is up to you. During the strike, the University's normal attendance arrangements will remain in place. Under these procedures, School Offices would get in touch with students once a certain level of unauthorised absence is reached. The School would want to discuss with students how unauthorised absence is affecting academic progress and put in place support measures to help students get back on track.
How can I lobby for change? Who can I lobby?
There is a variety of ways you can lobby for change in this situation. You can contact the VC and let him know of your thoughts at email@example.com, and email your Student Union officers at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also organise with other students, start petitions, write open letters, and campaign for change. You can turn to the Student Union if you would like any support or help in this.
Who do I contact with my worries?
We encourage you to contact your closest University and Student Union representative or staff. Your school office, academic advisor or course convenor is a good place to start, or your Student Rep or Student Union Officers.
If you would like more information about what the industrial action is about, ways to support the industrial action, or how to contact the University with complaints, we encourage you to read our longer FAQ here.
University of Sussex Students’ Union’s position and actions
On Monday 19th February, a special meeting of Union Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Students’ Union supporting lecturers in their planned fourteen days of strike action over the next four weeks.
Your elected student representatives also voted to support the creation of a hardship fund, and to support individual students seeking compensation as a result of the strike action.
Students discussed the reasons behind the industrial action and the impact on current and future students before considering a range of potential positions to take.
It was also announced prior to Monday’s meeting that, thanks to the lobbying of the Union’s Full-Time Officers, the University will be amending assessments and examinations so no student will be assessed on content not taught as a result of strike action.
The Students’ Union is working hard to back UCU and their action, and continue to support students to make sure they are not disadvantaged by the strikes:
Guidance for casualised staff
Note that, unlike the national FAQ’s, these are not checked by union lawyers. If in doubt, always refer to the nationally available information or double-check with UCU.
1. I am contracted to teach at Sussex. Can and should I participate in the strike?
First of all, you have the right to strike if you are a member of UCU, regardless of your contractual status, as long as your contractor is the University of Sussex. HR is establishing a protocol for recording your strike participation and subsequent salary deductions (see section 4 below). If you are a UCU member, the union very strongly urges you to take strike action. And there are many reasons for that (see here for UCU's briefing note for casualised staff). The key point is that as someone at the beginning of your career, you will be particularly affected by the destruction of the ‘defined benefits’ pension scheme; since you will have little or no benefits accrued under the current system. Staff towards the end of their career, on the other hand, are less affected as they will still receive the guaranteed benefits they have built up under the defined benefits scheme. If you want to find out more about the dispute (and there is still time for that), there are some links below the strike dates in the resources document. We cannot emphasise enough how important this issue is for UCU and for the future of UK Higher Education as a whole. As you will have noticed, the plan of holding 14 days of strike is far more serious that any industrial action UCU has taken in the last decades. This shows the gravity of the issue. Once we lose a good defined benefits scheme, it will be gone forever. This is unlike any other dispute we have had. This also raises the stakes of this dispute to an equally unprecedented level. It is very important for this strike to be successful and to have high rates of participation: otherwise, our very ability to put pressure on the employers in any future dispute will be undermined. You may read or hear that the fight for a just pension is hopeless. This not true! In the UK the biggest pension system, for teachers, is a defined benefit system. Even in the USA, strong union actions by the San Francisco City College branch of the American Federation of Teachers have recently saved a similar pension system. They have sent us a statement of solidarity including a contribution to the UCU strike fund!
2. I am not a UCU member. Can I also strike?
Non-members are encouraged not to cross the picket, in effect, to strike (and the university does not know who is a member of the union), but union support for any subsequent disciplinary action would not be available unless you are a member of UCU. But you can, and in our view should, join UCU. It’s not too late to join now – follow this link: https://www.ucu.org.uk/join,fill in an online form and it is done. You can do it up to the day of the strike, including on the picket line, and you will be c overed by the dispute. Membership becomes active as soon as the online form is completed and with UCU. As a UCU member, you are protected from victimisation and retaliation, you have access to strike pay, and there are multiple other benefits as well – including and most importantly the solidarity of your colleagues! If you are a postgraduate who teaches, it is free for you to join UCU - but make sure that you join as a FULL MEMBER, not as a student member. If you are a student member but you also do teaching, upgrade your membership NOW to the full membership so you are covered by the dispute and entitled to access strike pay. This upgrade is free if you are a PhD student who teaches. If you are not a PhD student, the membership fee for the lowest earning band is very low – around £1 a month.
3. I fear that participating in the strike will make me vulnerable towards my head of department. What if they hold it against me next time I apply for a job, or when my contract is up for renewal?
It is your legal right to take strike action, and it is illegal for any employer to use strike participation against you in any way. However, we are aware that theory and practice don't always correspond, especially for staff on casual or fixed term contracts who might fear that their future employment prospects could be jeopardised if they take action in breach of their contract or that the department management does not like. As a union, we are doing everything we can to make sure that no one can be singled out and suffer repercussions.
• Sussex UCU is writing to Heads of Departments to remind them not to use any intimidating practices towards staff in order to prevent them from striking; and to make them aware that the UCU will be monitoring how departments treat staff who take part in the strike. If any evidence emerges that staff who have participated in the strike experience different treatment in the future, or are disadvantaged for future contract renewals, we are telling Heads of Departments that the union will be taking action against these practices in order to protect our members.
• The more of us that take strike action, the less likely it is that individuals can be victimised. We therefore strongly advise you to communicate with your colleagues and your departmental UCU rep and to set up a departmental meeting to prepare for the strike and convince your colleagues to participate. If you need any help in setting up a departmental meeting, write to us and we will try our best to help facilitate a meeting.
4. If I participate in the strike, how much pay will I lose? Is there a way I can be compensated for my lost earnings?
This is a very important issue especially for casualised staff – whether hourly paid or fixed term. The University has said both casualised staff and staff on regular full-time employment contracts risk 1/365th of their pay being docked per strike day (or a pro rata proportion if they work part time). For ATs,they will provide a weekly declaration form on which the strike days for that week are listed. You will be expected to select the days you are participating in the strike. If you are not expected to work on a particular strike day, no deduction will be made but HR says: "[you] should ensure [you]do not tick that day on the strike form as we would not know which days they would normally work”.
The good news is that there is a central strike fund for those in need (the UCU 'Fighting Fund') that you can apply to in order to receive strike pay; and members on casual contracts are prioritised for applications. The link to the rules for applying and to the application form itself are under “Resources” below – make sure to read this before taking strike action. However, the amount that the national strike fund covers is limited to £50 per day starting from the fourth day of strike action; and to a maximum of £500 per person in total.
We recognise that hourly paid staff rely fully on the income they earn in term time as they are not paid for non-term periods. To make sure that casualised, hourly paid and part time staff are not disproportionately disadvantaged, we are taking various steps:
• Sussex UCU branch are setting up a local hardship fund alongside the national strike fund that will cover the first three days of strike action for ATs and low income staff and two of the three first days for better paid and securely employed staff.
• All staff who participate in strike action on four or more days (not necessarily consecutive) should apply to the central strike fund and will receive a confirmation email and a claim reference number. They can then simply forward this information to the Sussex Hardship Fund Administratorto be eligible for the Local Hardship Fund support. For ATs and other casualised staff the local support will be to cover the first three days’ salary as docked (1/365th of their pay per strike day) up to a maximum of £50/day.
• Because ATs and other casualised staff will face deductions only on days when they have specified duties it may not be possible to participate fully in the strike. In this case you may apply directly to the Local Hardship Fund and we will consider waiving the four day requirement and providing support for up to three days’ salary as docked (1/365th of their pay per strike day) based on evidence of actual deductions up to a maximum of £50/day.
• Deductions will be taken out of the pay packet relating to the month in which the strike days fall, where the declaration form is received in time for the payroll deadline (i.e. strike days in Feb will be deducted from the salary payment made at the end of Feb and so on). If the declaration is not received in time for the payroll deadline for that month, the deduction will be made from the following month’s pay. These pay statements will form the primary evidence of deduction for the assessment of Strike Fund support. Both the central and the local Hardship Funds will endeavour to process and return strike pay as quickly as possible after we receive evidence of deductions. We are not able at this stage to confirm how long it will take for strike pay claims to be processed. If you envisage that you will be suffering immediate hardship as a result of strike pay deductions, get in touch with the branch. We will try to help by supporting an early application to the UCU national Fighting Fund and the Local Hardship Fund even in the absence of a payslip from next month showing the difference in income. Possible forms of evidence could be: a pay slip for the month of the strike showing lower earnings compared to a previous pay slip; evidence of timesheets submitted with no hours claimed on strike days as opposed to other weeks; or a combination of timesheets/pay slips compared to the hours outlined in your contract (if you are just starting to teach this term and don’t have a previous pay slip to use as a comparison, for example). The resources below include a link to the rules of application to the strike fund, and some further tips for casualised groups
• Besides all these options, there is an amazing charitable organisation called Education Support Partnership, of which UCU is a major contributor and close partner. Education Support are a one stop call for several issues and hardships, including financial concerns, sexual harassment, stress, working for educators. We encourage members to make use of this resource. We appreciate that you may, as many cases have highlighted, struggle to pay your monthly rent as a result of permanently losing up to half your monthly income during this strike period. Education Support issues grants to educators facing financial and money worries. You can find out everything you need to know about this form of hardship support here: https://www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk/helping-you/apply-grant
5. What do I tell my students? What if the department wants me to reschedule my seminar / lecture?
We encourage you to talk to your students about the strike and explain why you are taking action and why this is important. UCU has resources available here (https://www.ucu.org.uk/why-we-aretakingaction-over-USS) to explain the dispute to the students. The official advice from the union is to not reschedule any classes that are cancelled because of the strike. We know that you might come under pressure from your Head of Department to reschedule your classes; if this is the case, let the union know immediately.
6. Do I need to notify the employer before going on strike?
• UCU’s advice for those who are employees is not to notify the employer, as there is no obligation to do so, and notifying them would allow the employer to take action to minimise the strike impact.
7. OK, I am on board. What concrete steps do I need to take before the strike?
• Check that your UCU membership is up to date. This includes making sure you’re a full member, not a student member. Or: join the union if you're not already a member!
• Contact the local branch administrator: email@example.com to get onto the organisational email list.
• Talk to your colleagues and encourage them to join in to take strike action (and to join the union) and to not cross picket lines on strike days.
• Write to your students encouraging them to support the strike by not crossing picket lines on strike days. We will circulate an email template for this purpose in the coming days.
• Set up an out of office email reply explaining that you are on strike and that you will not be answering emails on strike days, or, even better, that you will be deleting all emails coming in on a strike day, and that emails should be resent on non-strike days.
8. What happens on the days of the strike?
• Come to the official UCU picket line in the morning!
• Don't go into the office and don't do any work relating to your employment / contracted work on strike days. This includes administrative work: i.e. not updating tabula, not accessing the University's email servers, etc. It also means no marking. This is important, as some marking will fall within the period of the strike. UCU policy is to only work 7.5 hours on non-strike days; that means that it is not the intention that employees / workers will catch up with marking and emails on non-strike days through excessive work. If this means that students will not receive their essays back in time, then this is a consequence of the strike.
• Participation in seminars and events that would be part of your normal work schedule is also covered by the strike.
1. Thursday 22nd February
2. Friday 23rd of February
3. Monday 26th of February
4. Tuesday 27th of February
5. Wednesday 28th of February
6. Monday 5th of March
7. Tuesday 6th of March
8. Wednesday 7th of March
9. Thursday 8th of March (International Women’s Day and Women’s Strike)
10. Monday 12th of March
11. Tuesday 13th of March
12. Wednesday 14th of March
13. Thursday 15th March
14. Friday 16th of March
UCU FAQ’s on the pension dispute: https://www.ucu.org.uk/uss-action-faqs
UCU briefing note on casualised staff: here
Information on the Fighting Fund and how to apply:
Rules: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/9164/USS-dispute-Support-for-members-takingindustrialaction/pdf/ucu_ussdispute_fightingfund.pdf Applications for the Fighting Fund: https://ucu.custhelp.com/app/fighting_fund/
UCU resources on the strike for students and concerned members of the public: https://www.ucu.org.uk/why-we-are-taking-action-over-USS
Complaints, feedback, questions and updates
Q. I still am worried, who should I contact?
If you have complaints about the impact of the industrial action on you, we encourage you to contact the University.
You can contact the Sussex Vice Chancellor, who is the head of the University, Prof. Adam Tickell, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also wish to contact your heads of schools, departments or other University staff such as head of support services or the library. You can find their contact details on the University of Sussex website.
Q. What if I’ve still got questions?
The University has published information about the industrial action on their website, which you can find here.
There is also a variety of people that you can contact to get answers for your questions. The Students’ Union, the University’s Student Support Service, or your School Office is a good place to start.
Q. Where can I get updates about the strike?
You can receive updates from UCU through their website and Twitter.
The University should communicate with you about disruption to your classes via email and the Sussex app. You can also keep track of updates on their webpage here.
The Students’ Union will update our information on the strike as and when we get it. You can stay updated by keeping track of this page, and via our Facebook and Twitter pages.
Got a comment/criticism about anything discussed in this article? Let us know on our social media channels!
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