UCU Industrial Action Explained

Ahead of our preferendum on the proposed UCU industrial action, we've compiled information to inform you of the context for the strike, and provided a glossary of terms to educate you as students on the situation.

What's this about?

As we stated in our previous article, the University and College Union (UCU) has called for strike action from 25 November to 4 December 2019 on two separate issues: the pensions dispute, and pay and working conditions.

Why has the UCU called for strike action?


Unlike the 2018 strikes, which were about ensuring the benefits of the pension scheme were safeguarded for staff, this round of strikes is concerning who contributes the funding to cover the increased costs necessary to maintain the pension scheme. The UCU believe this cost should be covered by the employer (the University), not the employees (the members of academic staff). The UCU are calling for the University to cover the deficit, through increased employer contributions, with no detriment to UCU members.

Pay and working conditions

The UCU believe the pay of academic staff at universities has dropped by around 17% in ‘real wages’ since 2009 based on findings from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). In more general terms, ‘real wages’ go down for everyone when inflation is higher. For example, if you get an annual pay rise of 2% but inflation is at 3%, it is a ‘real wages’ pay cut of 1% despite the extra pay; this is driven by economic trends and inflation. The UCU are calling for the University to immediately take steps to reverse the supposed pay decline, by increasing staff pay. The working conditions dispute also focuses on the increased casualisation of staff, the gender and BAME pay gap, and increasing workloads.

You can find more information from the UCU on both issues here.

What will happen during the strikes?

During the strikes your lecturer may be striking. This means they will not come in to teach your lectures, seminars, tutorials or other academic sessions. They will also not be present in their office hours or undertake any work such as marking of assignments or replying to emails. Those who are striking do not need to inform you that they will not be running a particular lecture or other session, although they may choose to do so at their own discretion.

Many lecturers may ask you to not ‘cross the picket line’. This means they would ask you to act in solidarity with those striking and not come into campus through the picket line of striking lecturers; this boundary is usually established at the entrance to a workplace.

If you are an international student on a Tier 4 visa you will not be deemed to have missed a contact point if that contact point was denied to you due to the strike.

In addition to the strike, until further notice the UCU will be taking ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS). ASOS is defined by the UCU to potentially include: working to contract (only the hours defined by their contract, e.g. 9-5pm); not covering for absent colleagues; not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action; not undertaking any voluntary activities; a marking and assessment boycott. It is uncertain at this time how long ASOS would last after the end of the wholescale strike action.

Why are we holding a preferendum?

Students have a right to collectively decide the policy of the Students’ Union in regard to the proposed UCU strike action. The Officer Group have called a preferenda with four options to choose from, with voting taking place from Wednesday 20 to Friday 22 November. The reasons for this decision are simple; this is an issue that students hold various different beliefs on. Ultimately, the stance of the Students’ Union is determined by you, the students. On issues that are of this nature, which will undoubtedly impact all students, it is only fair and reasonable for the decision to lie with you, the membership.

As the two disputes balloted by the UCU are combined into the same period of industrial action, these four positions refer to both the pensions dispute and the dispute on pay and working conditions. Whilst we understand that students may have different opinions regarding the two different ballots, as the UCU have combined the two issues we will reflect that decision in this preferendum. Therefore the UCU’s stance refers to their stance on both the pensions dispute and the dispute on pay and working conditions.

The four voting options are:

a. To support the UCU’s strike action and its stance in its entirety.

b. To support the UCU’s stance regarding ‘action short of strike’, but reject the decision for wholescale strikes.

c. To support the UCU’s stance, but reject any form of industrial action and ask all parties to convene further talks to establish a mutually agreeable way forward.

d. To reject industrial action and oppose the UCU’s stance in its entirety.

Voting will take place on the SU website between 10am on Wednesday 20 November and 4pm on Friday 22 November.

As a Students’ Union, it is our responsibility to act in the interests of our membership, you – the students. In addition to receiving your guidance on whether we as a Students’ Union should or shouldn’t support the strike action, we are also working to mitigate any negative effects to your experience.


Picket Line

A picket line is a boundary established by workers on strike, usually at the entrance to their workplace, which others are asked not to cross.

Industrial action

Industrial action is usually organised by trade unions, most commonly when employees are forced out of work or unhappy with a work related situation where the employees were unable to reach an agreement with the employer. Industrial action can include striking, action short of strike or lockout (where the employer stops workers from working).


The University and College Union (UCU) are one of the largest trade unions in the UK higher education sector, lobbying for the rights of trade union members. At Royal Holloway around 400 members of staff are members of UCU.


The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is the largest pension scheme for academics and professional staff of British universities. There are 400,000 members across 350 institutions.


A referendum is a direct and universal vote in which an entire electorate is invited to vote on a particular proposal; a preferendum or preferenda is a referendum offering a choice of several options.

Action short of strike

Action short of a strike (ASOS) is defined by the UCU to potentially include: working to contract (only the hours defined by their contract, e.g. 9-5pm); not covering for absent colleagues; not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action; not undertaking any voluntary activities; a marking and assessment boycott.


The transformation of a workforce from largely employed on permanent contracts to largely employed on a short-term or casual basis.

Trade union

An organised association of workers in a trade, group of trades, or profession, trade unions are formed to protect and further the rights and interests of their members (this is different to students’ unions which are charities rather than trade unions).


Either a system of voting secretly and in writing on a particular issue, or as a verb, an organisation asking members to vote secretly on an issue.


A strike is a period of time where employees decide not to come into work in protest about a particular aspect about their employment. They do not get paid whilst on strike. Strikes are often referred to as ‘industrial action’.