Should We Believe UCU?

Alexander Douglas
14 min readFeb 6, 2020


My union, the University and College Union, has called for 14 days of strikes over a four-week period from February to March.

University strikes are a very indiscriminate weapon. Students are deprived of classes that they’ve paid for. For a student to miss a few lectures during one semester of her degree perhaps isn’t such a big deal. But the courses are expensive for many students. And the cost hits the poorest students and families the hardest. And there haven’t been too many refunds, and several UCU branches have, to my knowledge, told their members not to recommend that students ask for refunds as this confirms the consumerist model of university service-provision.

For students to miss 22 days of teaching over two consecutive semesters — some of whom already missed 14 days back in 2018… that’s really starting to reduce the value of the whole degree. At St Andrews there are only 10 or 11 teaching weeks in the semester. Many of our modules are carefully designed to build systematically over those 11 weeks — pulling some weeks can effectively ruin the whole module.

This isn’t a reason not to strike. It’s a reason to do so only when the potential gains outweigh the costs. Since the cost is not zero, there is a limit to how many times we can strike in a given period. Striking too much when it can’t make a realistic difference means not being able to strike when it might. We need a responsible union to decide on this. I have sadly come to the conclusion that our union is not responsible.

I have written two Twitter threads on why I disagree with the strike action:

But here let me justify my claim that the union is not responsible.

Strike Timing That Puts Leaders Over Members

First, a relatively small and speculative thing: the timing of the previous strike. This ran from 25 November to 4 December of last year. That included one week that, for many Scottish universities, was during our exam period. There was no teaching that week to be disrupted by strikes and no basis for students to claim refunds. Nor could academic staff withdraw any labour besides the research they would have caught up with during that short reprieve before the marking period.

In effect, the strike on that week was, for academic staff in those universities, nothing more than a voluntary salary donation to the university. There was no loss to the university at all, unless you count the fairly festive atmosphere of picket lines around the campus while students studied for their exams.

This is the equivalent of calling a strike during the Christmas break. The employer loses nothing, but staff sacrifice their pay over the period. It makes no strategic sense at all. So why did the union schedule it for that week?

I see no reason they couldn’t have scheduled it a week earlier. But I notice that they had an event planned at a university for November 21 — the UCU Equality Groups Conference. They wouldn’t want to cross a picket line to attend their own event. I’ve never heard a very good explanation for the timing of the strike, and I’m not convinced that the union leadership didn’t throw thousands of their members under the bus for their own convenience. This might be wrong. But it shows incompetence at best, in my view, to have scheduled the strikes when they did. It doesn’t inspire trust.

Three Fantasy Fights for the Ballot

Of the two strikes called in the last ballot, one is over USS pension contributions, the other is over the ‘Four Fights’. These are: pay devaluation, gender and ethnic discrimination in pay, casualisation, and excessive workloads.

I care deeply about the last three items on this list, for personal reasons that might be obvious, and also as the line manager to our graduate tutors, who have been working hard to try to get some improvement on their casual teaching contracts with the broad support of the department including myself. I’m not convinced, however, that the HEC really prioritises these last three ‘Fights’, especially since it’s very unclear what concrete outcome at the national level a strike could deliver on them.

Pay devaluation was very much front and centre in the material circulated around the strike ballot. The other three issues were never discussed in equivalent detail. Jo Grady’s report to the HEC points out that no guarantee on the other three fights from the university’s negotiating team, UCEA, would be very useful. She also strongly implied that a deal on pay was a necessary condition for resolution:

I find it hard not to conclude that pay devaluation is the only one of the Four Fights that the union hopes to get any meaningful resolution on. This is confirmed from the letter UCEA wrote to the UCU Vice President in November of this year:

On workload, equality, and casualisation, the recommendation from a group of unions including UCU to the universities’ negotiating team (the joint unions claim) made demands that are either absurdly restrictive or pointlessly vague.

There was a demand ‘to achieve a 35 hour working week for all staff working in universities’. Read strongly, this is too restrictive: nobody may ever work more than 35 hours in a week? Later it is watered down to ‘a national framework agreement that will deliver parity between institutions to ensure that all staff are on a 35 hour per week contract (for full-time employees).’ Most of us in my department are on 37.5 hour contracts, so this would make a small nominal difference and no real difference, since the needs of the job ensure that people work longer than their contracted hours. So really this amounts at best to a vague demand to control workloads. UCEA can easily commit to that, and did. But the union complains of the vagueness of this, despite being the cause of it.

Another specific demand in the joint union claim is to end zero-hours contracts. Why? Our graduate tutors get paid for the hours they work, and they take whatever tutorials are available to them in the teaching schedule. Changing their contracted hours wouldn’t change any of that. Certainly it wouldn’t improve their rate of pay; there was nothing at all on the joint union claim to address that issue, only a demand for a pointless and costly task for support staff to perform — devising new contracts with exactly the same financial result. There is nothing in the joint union claim about, e.g., a national minimum rate of pay for hourly teaching, even though our graduate tutors are paid £10/hr less than their counterparts elsewhere (including a London weighting, but still). There is nothing on a clear framework for determining preparation time for hourly teaching.

Or take the demand to move everyone paid hourly onto a fractional contract. Again think of the pointless administrative work. Now support staff would have to know how many hours of tutorials a tutor or sessional lecturer was going to run over the period of a long contract. They’d have to know how busy a brand new PhD candidate will be with thesis-writing in semester two of year three, and also how many hours of suitable tutorials will be available to that candidate at that time (though they won’t know which other candidates will be around be then). They’ll then calculate all the required hours of teaching over the entire PhD, divide by the number of hours worked by a full-time staff member over an equivalent period (or should we divide by all the hours worked until retirement?), and then end up with a minuscule fractional permanent contract, although they know it will be cancelled when the PhD candidate graduates.

If bureaucracy is its own reward, this is admirable, but I don’t understand how it addresses any of the real issues to do with precarious employment. It doesn’t change the fact that universities sometimes have short-term teaching gaps to fill, and the ratio of graduates to available jobs is so high that this is often all they can get. Some universities exploit loopholes in existing legislation to fill permanent gaps with a series of temporary contracts, to avoid paying various benefits. But if the joint union claim was meant to address this illegal practice it certainly hid that well. Some hourly teaching staff would perhaps receive benefits they wouldn’t otherwise receive. But anyone who doesn’t think the university’s primary response would be to just cancel most graduate tuition has been dealing with very different managers than I have.

On the gender and ethnic pay gap, the joint union claim didn’t even try to pretend it had any actual demand:

Generally you strike because you want something the employer refuses, not because you want the employer to come up with something for you to want, though you yourself can’t be bothered to actually think of anything. Notice that, of the three standard measures of pay inequality, UCU hasn’t even specified which one they mean. The issue doesn’t mean enough to them to warrant that amount of intellectual labour.

Here is my core argument: If the union leaders cared about these issues, they would surely have been willing to devote more than a few seconds’ thought to them. But there is no evidence of their having done so, and quite a lot of evidence against. I conclude that probably they don’t care.

My alternative hypothesis of what’s going on here is this: The other three fights were put there for moral justification, not to achieve any clear objective. Perhaps it feels uncomfortably mercenary for a bunch of well-paid, full-time academic staff to strike for 22 days in pursuit of a better deal on their pension (though it’s far better than what the majority of people in this country get) and on their salaries (though the starting salary for a lecturer is miles above the median household income, which falls as fast if not faster against inflation).

The other three fights allow people to feel that they’re doing it for the poor, the precarious, the minorities. It’s ironic that the only concrete demands in that document amount to the dumping of a huge load of entirely pointless work onto staff who are, for the most part, paid much less than the average UCU member. It’s revealing that no obvious concrete policies that would actually help appear anywhere in the demands.

Dishonesty About Pay Devaluation

One fight featured much more heavily both in the joint unions claim and in the ballot material: pay devaluation. There is no question that real salaries have declined for faculty and casual staff since 2008. There should be no need to distort the truth in order to make this case.

Why, then, did the union do just that? It continually claims that staff pay has declined by 20% over the last decade. This claim is wildly exaggerated, and to get to it took the union three separate pieces of spin: (1) using an inflationary measure that is subject to chain drift (RPI), (2) choosing the peak of a temporary spike as the baseline against which to measure the trend decline, and (3) making a straightforward computational error (if it was an error). All three are pointed out and explained by Mike Otsuka; the first here, the other two here.

Despite this being pointed out to them, the union continues to use this 20% figure, including in the ballot that they’ve taken as a mandate for the last and the next round of strikes. You think they’d at least correct the computational error, even if they insisted on using RPI and their baseline. They don’t seem to be interested in telling the truth to their members. They seem to be interested in making sure their members continue to vote for strikes in the ballots.

Moreover, what is the resolution meant to be on this dispute (let alone the other three ‘fights’)? The joint union claim calls for an increase of RPI + 3% to existing salaries, or (if this is higher) a minimum increase of £3,349. That is quite absurd; to pay that increase to UCU members alone would cost the universities over £400,000,000. Notice it doesn’t help hourly-paid staff, unless they’re moved to fractional contracts; I very much doubt that UCU would make that a condition of taking a pay deal from UCEA.

The joint union claim points out that the universities sector as a whole has large surpluses. I have no idea what accounting methodology they use to get their figures (and their track record isn’t great). But clearly there isn’t half a billion pounds sitting in an account somewhere to be paid out in a year to cancel a decade’s worth of pay devaluation.

When I raised this with the UCU Vice President she replied that the real demands in the negotiation were much more flexible. But she couldn’t say what they are, because of the confidentiality of discussions:

So we’ve been called out on a strike, but we’re not allowed to know what we’re striking for — so far the ‘briefings’ that ‘break down the detail’ have amounted to one infographic repeating the joint union claim, which if anything implies that those remain the union’s demands.

The leaders seemed to want us to throw as big a tantrum as they did over the 1.8% pay increase offered by UCEA in previous negotiations. But they obviously didn’t trust that we’d do so on the basis of the facts, and maybe they were right not to. So they went with lying (you can call something an innocent mistake until it’s clearly pointed out and still not corrected).

Obfuscation and Distortion on USS

The other dispute behind the next round of strikes is the continuation of the pensions dispute that started this all in 2018. The union continues to tell us, ambiguously, that it’s negotiating to keep employee contributions in the USS pension scheme, which covers a huge number of higher education workers, to 8%. But it’s not clear whether this means keeping us at 8% indefinitely, or only until sometime in 2021, when the new USS valuation will be submitted to the Pensions Regulator and we’ll know the new levels of contributions required to reduce the fund’s deficit. One of the negotiators presented this dichotomy to me quite starkly:

If the idea is to keep to 8% indefinitely, this is utterly unrealistic. The 2018 valuation put contributions at 34.7% for ‘deficit-reduction’. That means universities paying 26.7% of salaries in pension contributions, if employees stay on 8%. More importantly, we don’t know what the outcome of the 2020 valuation might be. Despite everything, USS could call for even bigger contributions. That would mean a huge expense for the universities and, given that they need to work out their budgets in advance, they could certainly never agree to this in advance of knowing what the actual cost will be.

But if, on the other hand, the idea is to keep to 8% only until the 2020 valuation is complete, this is a trivial thing to strike for 22 days over. The amount we lost in pay would in most cases exceed the amount we saved in pension contributions — and pension contributions at least come back to some degree!

Either the goal is too big for a strike to achieve, and then the strike is pointless, or it is too small to strike over, and then the strike is unjustifiable.

When I press UCU branches on this, I keep getting the reply that the point of the strike is to pressure USS to use a non-standard valuation methodology, in order to find the result that the fund’s deficit is smaller than reported and doesn’t require such big contributions:

The Joint Expert Panel, consisting of employer and union representatives, recommends such a different methodology. But strikes of course don’t pressure USS directly. Actuaries and fund managers don’t care about picket lines in the universities! So the claim is really that the universities (UUK) could, but aren’t, pressuring USS to use a different valuation.

Now remember that USS is under a lot of pressure from the Pensions Regulator to stick to standard methodologies. So if it refuses to budge on this, there seems to be a perfectly valid explanation for its behaviour, one that doesn’t require us to assume any lackluster lobbying from the universities.

Remember, also, that the universities— you would think — don’t want to pay higher contributions themselves. So they should be motivated on their own to pressure USS to bring out a higher valuation. When I asked the Union Vice President why they wouldn’t be doing this, she replied:

But there is a pretty common answer going around union circles: the employers secretly want USS to undervalue, so that contributions have to go up. Why? Because in the long run this will stop the fund working on its current hybrid model — part Defined Benefit/part Defined Contribution — which was protected by the 2018 strike. The fund will have to go to a purely Defined Contribution (DC) system, paying out smaller pensions and saving the universities cash in lower contributions.

I think this is a pretty wild theory. I am well aware that in 2018 there was a strong motivation among employers to move to DC, and I wrote about it. But now that the hybrid system is in place, it would take a very long period of continually pressuring the fund to undervalue, driving contributions higher, and forcing escalating industrial action, until the system finally broke and had to be replaced. By then the Vice Chancellors orchestrating the evil would presumably have retired.

I’ve been sent some ‘leaked’ slides from a UUK-USS Conference, which are meant to prove the conspiracy. All I see in them is a mapping out of different hypothetical scenarios for the future of the fund, one that includes a move to collective DC (CDC), but also ‘Option 3’ — the fund’s own interpretation of the JEP’s recommendation for keeping benefits as they are. Maybe you can find the smoking gun that proves the conspiracy, though you might need to follow Mike’s advice:

What we’re asked to believe is that UUK are working against their own short-term interests in a nefarious ploy to break the fund in the long-run. We’re being asked to strike because apparently UUK isn’t pressuring the fund enough, because the fund can apparently afford to run on much lower contributions, and — most implausible — that it would be willing to do so if only UUK pressured it in the right way. That’s the only way I could see a conceivable worthwhile objective to this strike when it comes to the pensions part of the dispute.

The problem is that we have to take it on faith, as I was again told, because all talks are held confidentially:

We have to not only take the union’s word, but to take it over the word of our employers. Now employers aren’t always honest, to put it mildly. But, to repeat, the union leadership itself hasn’t shown a track record of putting the needs of its members above its own, nor of telling the truth as a matter of habit. So I find it difficult to take things on faith when the stakes are so high.

Striking for Glory

I think there’s a very real possibility that these strikes were pushed for by a leadership that cares more about grandstanding and broadcasting its radicalism to the world than actually effecting change. People do a lot to glorify themselves. I fear that that the reputation of the bold and radical UCU leaders will be the only benefit coming out of this strike, which in the meantime will impose enormous costs on UCU members, students, and other bystanders, such as support staff (some of whom have reported to me that their administrative loads become nearly unmanageable as a result of the disruption of strikes).

To other UCU members: I can’t tell you whether to strike or not. But the union is telling you lots of things. I can only tell you to think carefully before believing them.



Alexander Douglas

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: