Staff at 150 UK universities are set to go on strike from Wednesday in a significant escalation of an ongoing dispute over pay, working conditions and pension cuts. It will be the biggest series of strikes ever seen in the UK’s academic sector.

70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) took part in three days of strikes last November, and are now set for a further 18 days of industrial action across February and March. The move comes after unions rejected the latest pay offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA).

During pay negotiations last week, UCEA increased its offer to an 8% pay rise for lower salaried roles, with a minimum 5% rise for all other staff. UCEA described the proposal as its ‘full and final pay offer’, noting that it would represent the ‘highest uplift in nearly 20 years’.

However, in a statement UCU described the offer as ‘well below inflation and [doing] nothing for years of pay degradation’.

‘Employers have still yet to make any further offers on the issues of casualisation, workload and equality pay gaps,’ it added.

In response to the latest pay negotiations, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that the pay rises offered by UCEA were ‘testament to the effective strike action our union has delivered’.

‘However, it is immediately clear this offer will do little to protect our members in a cost-of-living crisis, nor is it at the limit of what a sector with over £40 billion in reserves can afford,’ she added. ‘The offer is another devastating real-terms pay cut for tens of thousands of our members, following over a decade of below inflation pay awards.’

In a statement on 26 January, UCEA chief executive Raj Jethwa called on the unions to consult their members over the latest offer, rather than pushing ahead with further strikes. ‘[Higher education] institutions urge trade union leaders to provide their own members with a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable, before giving them the chance to accept or refuse a pay offer that genuinely attempts to address cost of living pressures,’ he said.