The biggest ever wave of staff strikes is underway at 74 higher education institutions across the UK. On 20 February, members of the University and College Union (UCU) walked out amid ongoing disputes relating to pensions, pay and working conditions.

Lecturers and support staff will strike for a total of 14 days, spread across a four-week period. The action follows strikes in November last year and in February 2018, with lecturers citing stagnant wages, unrealistic workloads and gender and ethnicity pay gaps as key reasons for the strikes. A parallel dispute relates to changes in pension provisions, which lecturers say will make them poorer in retirement.

The UCU has blamed ‘hardline’ university vice-chancellors for refusing to consider pay increases during discussions with the union. ‘This unprecedented level of action shows just how angry staff are at their universities’ refusal to negotiate properly with us,’ said UCU general secretary Jo Grady in a statement.

In a declaration of support, Claire Sosienski Smith, vice-president of the National Union of Students, criticised government reforms that ‘have forced higher education providers to fight each other in a “market” built on student fees rather than providing accessible, life-long, fully-funded learning’. She added that while students will be angry about the disruption, improvements to lecturers’ working conditions are needed if they are to support their students ‘to their fullest ability’.

Last week, the bodies representing institutions and senior management – Universities UK (UUK) and the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) – released an open letter highlighting progress made in previous discussions with trade union representatives, and urging staff to reconsider the strike action.

In a separate statement, the UCEA said that its members ‘deeply regret any disruption’ to students resulting from the strikes. It pointed out that the strikes are taking place at less than half of the universities involved in current pay negotiations, and that just 5% of university and college staff took part in the previous wave of strikes. The UCEA described the UCU’s pay demands as ‘unaffordable’, noting that several institutions are already operating with financial deficits.