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Information for students about the UCU strike action

What is going on with the UCU strikes?


UCU - University and College Union, UCU, is a trade union that represents a large number of University staff in the UK, such as lecturers, professional service staff and postgraduate students.

UUK - Universities UK, UUK, is a representative organisation for the UK's universities.

USS - Universities Superannuation Scheme, USS, is one of the largest principal private pension schemes for universities and other higher education institutions in the UK.

JNC - Joint Negotiating Committee, JNC, of the USS is a committee consisting of representatives from both UCU and UUK.

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.

Strike - A strike is a refusal to work organised by a body of employees as a form of protest.

Action Short of a Strike - Action short of a strike is an organised action by a body of employees as a form of a protest through actions that, as the name suggests, are just short of a strike. UCU has announced that in this dispute action short of a strike means that their members will only work to contract; not cover for absent colleagues; not reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action; and not undertake any voluntary activities over the course of the announced strike dates.

What is going to happen and how will this affect you?

It has not been announced yet whether the strike will take place over consecutive days or over a series of days during the strike period, but it is most likely to be consecutive days. During this time staff who are on strike will not teach any of their lectures or seminars and will not respond to any emails they receive.

Students should find out from staff in their school, either directly from the staff members themselves, or from school offices what teaching will be affected by the industrial action.

In 2018, strikers formed picket lines (a boundary established by workers on strike, especially at the entrance to the place of work, which others are asked not to cross) by the entrances to campus, which did cause some disruption to travel.

Those students that supported the strike did also join staff on the picket lines and some voluntarily did not attend lectures which were being taught by non-striking staff as a sign of solidarity with the strike.

Non-striking students and staff will be encouraged by those on the picket lines to not enter campus . They will not physically obstruct you from doing so and you will be able to enter the campus if you need to.

Whilst UCU primarily represents academic staff they do also represent some professional services staff as well. This means that as well as disruption to teaching there may be possible disruption to other services which are provided on campus.

In 2018 student representatives at the Students’ Union Council voted to support the industrial action, whilst continuing to lobby for the University to provide reasonable adjustments for students who would miss out on teaching. There will be a similar Council meeting on Thursday 14th Nov 7-9pm at Fulton A where they will decide the stance of the Students’ Union on the strike. All students will be able to present their views and discuss what they think the best course of action would be, with elected councillors making the final vote on the decision.


There are two things issues which UCU members were balloted on:

  • The first was changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This basically means changes to their pensions and how much they pay into them. UCU say that University staff will lose tens of thousands of pounds in retirement because of a series of detrimental changes made to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) since 2011, according to new analysis. According to modelling by First Actuarial, because of the changes to USS, a typical UCU member will pay around £40,000 more in to their pension, but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement leaving them £240,000 worse off in total.

  • The second issue was about the state of pay, contracts and workloads. The UCU says that staff pay has fallen by around 20% in the last decade. UCU also estimates that more than half of all academics are on temporary contracts.

At the University of Sussex staff voted to strike on both these issues and will be one of a group of sixty Universities which will see strike action. Staff at IDS will only be striking over pensions, and not regarding pay. The strikes themselves will be taking place 25 November-4 December. At Sussex 84% of members who voted backed strikes on a turnout of 67%. 80% of members backed strikes over pay and conditions on a turnout of 68%.

After that staff will be taking part in Action Short of a Strike. This basically means that staff will work very strictly to what is written in their contract, for example, not covering for absent colleagues, and not to rescheduling lectures lost to strike action.

Whilst UCU is saying that they are hoping not to take strike action and an agreement can be found between UCU and UUK before the end of the month this seems unlikely.

What happened before?

Staff also went on strike in 2018, where action took place over four weeks on fourteen days. Following the strike, students whose teaching had been disrupted by the strike were able to claim compensation for the time that had been lost. Both UCU and UUK had returned to negotiations after the first round of strikes but were unable to come to agreement, which led to members of the UCU voting to strike again.

Many universities compensated for the teaching that was lost, for example they:

  • Removed topics from examinations

  • Changed assessment methods

  • Extended deadlines

  • Changed the weighting of different module elements and

  • Given exam boards discretion to make allowance for poor performance that appeared out of line with performance elsewhere

It is possible that Sussex will choose to make up teaching in a similar way following this round of industrial action.

What can you, as a student, do?

If you have concerns about the impact that the strikes will have on teaching, you can take the following steps:

  • Contact your student experience team further support

  • Contact the student life centre if they have concerns about their mental health and wellbeing

The Office for Students, which is the independent regulator of Higher Education institutions has provided the following advice for students:

‘If you have had or will have your studies, assessments or other services disrupted, then you should contact your university or college in the first instance. You should be able to discuss whether it is possible to make up for any lost teaching, and whether any other loss of services and support can be rearranged so as to minimise the disruption that you have sustained.

Where lost teaching has had an impact on assessments or other work that has had to be submitted, you may be able to submit a claim for this to be taken into account as part of your university’s mitigating or extenuating circumstances process. For example, it may be appropriate to agree that deadlines for course work or dissertations should be extended. You should discuss this with your tutors or other appropriate staff. Your student union may also be able to offer advice.

If you’re not happy with the University’s response

If the issue is not satisfactorily resolved, then you have the right to complain through your university’s complaints processes. The process for this should be made clear to you by your university. If you have completed the complaints procedure and you are still unhappy with the outcome, you have the right to make a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA).

The OIA is an ombudsman scheme which looks at whether a higher education provider has fair procedures, whether it has followed those procedures correctly, and whether the outcome for the student is reasonable. The OIA has published useful guidance about its approach to complaints by students affected by the industrial action. They have also published case studies demonstrating the sort of complaints that have or have not been upheld in the past. There is no charge to students for lodging a complaint with the OIA.

The Office for Students regulatory powers in the event of future industrial action

Although we are unable to deal with the complaints of individual students, the OfS will seek to identify higher education providers who have failed to systematically protect the interests of students in the case of significant industrial action. Universities and colleges have to comply with a number of conditions to register with us, and we have published a note setting out where disruption to students’ studies may amount to a breach of these conditions.

We would expect to see that universities and colleges have taken all reasonable steps to reduce the impact of the strike action on teaching, learning and assessment, and have communicated clearly to students what the impact of any industrial action will be, particularly in relation to exams and assessments.

Universities and colleges should also make clear how certain groups of students, e.g. international students, will be affected and what mitigations will be put in place for them. They should also make clear to students who to contact if they wish to discuss the impact of the industrial action on them and get advice.

Where there is evidence of systematic failure at a registered higher education provider that risks breaching our conditions of registration, student bodies and third parties are able to notify us directly by contacting notifications@officeforstudents.org.uk. We may ask you or the provider for more information and will decide whether any mitigations are necessary.’

For more information, see The Office for Students website.

More information

  • WonkHE is an organisation which examines policy in Higher Education. They have written several helpful pieces about the strikes:

‘This is no ordinary strike’

‘Learning from Students’ Industrial Action Complaints’

  • The Times Higher Education has published a piece titled ‘UUK reforms will cut USS pensions by up to 40 per cent’. It outlines in depth how the proposed plans, as agreed by JNC will significantly impact the pensions of its members - and primarily those just beginning their careers.

  • The University of Sussex has published information for staff and students about the upcoming industrial action, including commonly asked questions and background information for the dispute.

  • University and College Union has published a strike FAQ, answering questions about the upcoming industrial action.