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Open letter to Postgrads & Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs)

Strikes are exceptional times. The local UCU understands that you may have many questions that require clarification. This open letter provides explanations to a number of questions that some of you have asked us, ahead of the strike. They are structured in the form of Questions and Answers.

(1) What is the strike about? Should I care?

(2) Can I strike?

(3) Can the University/Department force me NOT to strike?

(4) What happens in these ‘picket lines’?

(5) I will lose money if I go on strike. Can I get some support?

(6) I am on a zero-hour contract. How can I claim lost income if I strike?

(7) I have sympathy with the strike but I am quite nervous. I have not been on a strike before. Can I be arrested? Would something bad happen to me?

(8) I care for the students. Isn’t the strike going to negatively affect their studies?

(9) What else can I do to help?



(1)  What is the strike about? Should I care?

* On February 22nd staff at 61 universities across the country will be going on strike. Our Union, the UCU, has called for 14 days of action across four weeks. During this time, staff will not be teaching, answering e-mails, giving office hours, or marking.

* We did not want to go on strike, losing money and disrupting the students’ programme of studies. We were forced to because our employers – Universities UK management – many of whom receive massive salaries and have secured huge pensions – broke their promise about our pension, as agreed in our contracts. They want to change the way our future pensions are calculated and, effectively, destroy our pensions’ scheme (called USS). Some staff will lose as much as 50% of their pensions, an unprecedented loss in the history of USS, but management refuses to budge or bargain.

*  We are resorting to going on strike because it is the only way we can persuade Vice Chancellors to negotiate.

*  This strike is about defending your future pension.

* You may find the video below from the Warwick Student-Staff Solidarity group illuminating:


(2)  Can I strike?

YES – you are our colleague and co-worker. If you aspire to become an academic in the UK, your future pension will be directly affected by these horrible changes. If you are not already a member of the UCU, you can join easily by following the link below. Joining the UCU is FREE for GTAs, doctoral students and recent doctoral graduates. To join click below:


(3)  Can the University/Department force me NOT to strike?

GTAs who are UCU members are protected by the Union in case they will be put under pressure if they decide to go on strike.

It is unlawful to be put under pressure or bullied NOT to strike, especially if you are a member of the Union. If you are put under any pressure to break the strike, contact


(4)  What happens in these ‘picket lines’?

Your colleagues and other striking academics, members of the UCU, will be standing in the so-called picket lines in the 3 entrances to the University during the days of the strike. They will be there to ask members of the University to support the strike and to encourage them NOT to cross the picket line.

Crossing the picket line undermines the collective effort to defend our pensions, including your future pension.

All who participate in picket lines get clear instructions about what constitutes appropriate action in a picket line. In general, there is a positive atmosphere in a picket line.

We will be there to inform, to encourage, to seek support; not to confront.

There is nothing unlawful about picket lines. They are a form of free speech which is protected when you are on strike.. The police cannot arrest anyone just for being on a picket line.


(5)  Will I lose money if I go on strike? Can I get some support?

All those who strike will lose money. Some of us will lose very substantial amounts.  GTAs who are members of UCU can apply to recover their lost income for the hours planned, by showing evidence of the lost pay. They can access the so-called  Hardship Fund. Thus, it is to your benefit to be a member of the Union and it is FREE. See the link above about becoming a member.


(6)  I am on zero hours contract. How can I claim lost income if I strike?

Your engagement as GTA involves turning up in seminars/workshops in particular days and hours. If you strike you can make a claim to the UCU hardship fund to recover the pay you would have otherwise earned. But you can only do this if you are a UCU member. You will need to provide details of these units/days/times.


(7)  I have sympathy with the issues but I am quite nervous. I have not been on a strike before. Can I be arrested? Would something bad happen to me?

Strike action is LAWFUL in this country. In all striking Universities UCU members were lawfully balloted. We voted overwhelmingly (in some University support for the strike was up to 80%) to strike as the only action left to defend the pension levels we were promised (and the employers agreed to) in our contracts. This strike action is as legal as it gets.

UCU is a legal organization with numerous lawyers and law experts on their side, representing thousands of academics. UCU is recognized by the employers as the collective voice representing ALL academics in pay negotiations, even those who are not in the union.

No-one can be arrested for taking part in a lawful strike action in the UK. No-one.

Finally, there is always a feeling of anxiety when one joins other human beings to take collective action. This is normal. But this feeling disappears quickly when one joins their colleagues in the strike. Usually, it is feelings of empowerment and solidarity that rise to take the place of anxiety. Joining your colleagues and friends in a fight for a just cause is an incredible experience!


(8)  I care for the students. Isn’t the strike going to negatively affect their studies?

The purpose of a strike is to create an impact that will make the employers feel uncomfortable enough to move their negotiating position. Our purpose is not to harm students, many of whom support us. It is to defend our pensions – and the sector.

Departments and the University will take into account the impact of the strike on the students’ performance and studies – this is called taking into account ‘structural mitigation’. Students can register their feelings by complaining to the University management, and UCU encourages them to do so. They can ask the University management what action are taking to end the strike and demand that they should go back to the negotiating table to find an acceptable solution.

Local UCU also support the petition urging “the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching to commit to ensuring that all money saved on the wages of striking staff goes into the University of Bath Hardship Fund and towards improving mental health support for staff and students”. You can sign the petition here:


(9) What else can I do to help?

The most direct help you can give is to join the UCU action. That means taking strike action on the 22nd, 23rd, 26th, 27th, 28th February, and 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 12th to 16th March; which makes 14 days in total. Once industrial action has started it also means “work to contract”, meaning work no more than contracted hours, and volunteer for nothing – in particular do not cover for absent colleagues.

If you are not in the UCU, then you can join at any time. You are able to take action with UCU without joining, but UCU is able to offer both legal protection and a hardship fund. Otherwise:  not cross a picket line; not cover for striking colleagues; and most especially bear in mind that colleagues who are taking action are losing pay, and defending your pension too – so, do nothing to undermine the action of colleagues.

As said above you can also support the petition supported by local UCU urging “the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching to commit to ensuring that all money saved on the wages of striking staff goes into the University of Bath Hardship Fund and towards improving mental health support for staff and students”. You can sign the petition here:


Strike dates announced> Branch meeting Wednesday 14th February 1.15 pm 3E2.1




You will be called to take action at the same time as the majority of your colleagues in UCU branches around the UK.

Thursday 22 February
Friday 23 February

Monday 26 February
Tuesday 27 February
Wednesday 28 February

Monday 5 March
Tuesday 6 March
Wednesday 7 March
Thursday 8 March

Monday 12 March
Tuesday 13 March
Wednesday 14 March
Thursday 15 March
Friday 16 March

More information



Pensions ballot starts tomorrow – vote YES and YES to action

Employers are divided over the future of the USS pension scheme, with Warwick VC today making public his concerns about proposals to end the current scheme and transfer all risks to members.  Bath VC Glynis Breakwell, who sits on the board of USS, has not revealed Bath University’s view.

UCU members are now being balloted for strike action to defeat the proposals.  The ballot opens tomorrow, but members at Bath may not get their ballot papers untial a week later after Bath’s HR raised objections to the ballot process.

For more information go to the national UCU website and see the latest Bath UCU newsletter

USS: UCU moves to a ballot for action to defend pensions

A well attended conference for delegates from UCU branches in pre-92 universities was held in Manchester on November 9th. The conference voted unanimously to move to a ballot of members for action to defend pensions. For a full report on the conference click here.

For more background to the dispute over USS see Post by Sam Marsh (Sheffield UCU) at HE Marketsation

Pay and pensions fights ahead

Over 40 members attended a branch meeting on July 20th to hear UCU National Executive Committee member Denis Nicole outline the current position on pay and pensions.


The employers have increased their offer to 1.7% but made no meaningful concessions on either the gender pay gap or casualisation. Members are now being consulted in an e-ballot on whether to accept the offer or not. The deadline for voting is July 28th. If you have not received an email containing your link to the ballot check your junk mail and if you still can’t find it contact UCU head office.


As predicted, the employers are coming back to make further detrimental changes to the USS pension scheme. In 2014 the employers introduced a new Defined Contribution element to the scheme for earnings over £55,000. Defined Contribution schemes provide no guarantee of pension benefits. UCU managed to mitigate some of the worst elements of the employers’ proposed changes, but now they say the scheme’s assets are insufficient to meet future payments, UCU disputes the method used to value the scheme’s assets. It is likely that members will be called on to take action to defend pensions at some point during 2017-18.

USS pensions: more cuts coming ?

The USS pension scheme is the main scheme for academic and academic related staff in pre-1992 universities.  Three of its 10 directors are appointed by UCU.   UCU opposed the closure of the final salary scheme earlier this year.   We did secure some important changes to the scheme to protect members from the worst effects of the closure of the final salary scheme, but it has now ended.

The closure of the final salary scheme was the result of warnings to the USS Board that the scheme faced a huge deficit.   UCU challenged the way the scheme’s assets were valued and members supported strike action to defend the benefits that would be cut for future scheme members.  University of Sheffield UCU have produced a useful account of the events that led up to the end of the final salary scheme.

Now the scheme’s assets are set to be valued again, (for one of the more accessible descriptions of the issues at stake in the valuation process see this post from Mike Otsuka of LSE UCU)  and it is possible – perhaps even likely – that another huge deficit will be discovered and members will have to take further cuts to their benefits and/or increases to contributions.

University of Bath VC Glynis Breakwell has ruled herself out of any discussions with the local branch about USS because she is a paid member of the USS Board.  We have therefore set out to the University’s Director of HR the points we want the University to consider in any representations it makes on the future of the scheme.

For those with the appetite, USS have released a video stream of the meeting of institutions, including Bath University, held on December 1st.

We will keep you informed of any proposals that come forward.

USS consultation – guidance on responding

Our employer has to consult us about proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, and they will do that over a 60-day period starting on Monday 16th March.  UCU has produced guidance on responding to the consultation questions.

Bath UCU branch committee endorses this guidance.  We reject the claim that there is a huge deficit which requires increases in contributions and cuts in benefits.  For a fuller explanation of this, see the helpful note provided by Prof Simon Wood.

If you are not a UCU member please note that UCU has won substantial improvements in this scheme: in particular raising the salary cap from 40K unindexed to 55K indexed. Please consider joining UCU to protect your pension and your pay.

Consultation closes on 22 May.

Further information

A letter from a group of leading authorities on statistics, financial mathematics and actuarial science to Sir Martin Harris, the chairman of the USS trustee board, criticising the assumptions on which the valuation is made

Imperial College London’s official response to USS’s proposals, arguing that USS’s figures ‘are as likely to be modelling artefacts as a reflection of the underlying economic reality’

Warwick University’s critique of the ‘over-pessimistic assumptions and inappropriate methodology’ in the calculation of the USS deficit. Summary available

UCU’s response (compiled by First Actuarial) to the USS Trustee Consultation, providing a detailed critique of the valuation method.

Note in particular:

  • the cashflow projections for the next 70 years show USS’s healthy financial position (p.26)
  • the inconsistency in the assumptions (section 5)
  • the discussion of long-term rates of return from equities and gilts (section 7)
  • the distorting effect of the choice of discount rate based on gilt rates (appendix B).

Recent article in ‘The Actuary’ by a former vice-chair of the Bank of England, critical of the thinking behind derisking:

Note in particular the section on ‘misreading of risk’, which is especially relevant to USS.





Act now to stop pension theft

Another well attended branch meeting (minutes of meeting) called on UCU negotiators to stand firm as employers try to steal the pensions they promised us when they hired us.   Members should vote NO in the current online ballot. (more…)

Members urged to vote NO to USS changes

UCU has suspended the assessment boycott for a further period to allow time for members to be consulted about changes to the employers’ proposals for the future of the USS pension scheme. You will receive a message from UCU head office inviting you to take part in an online ballot. Your branch committee has examined the changes to the employers’ proposals and is strongly recommending that we REJECT the current offer. (more…)

Bath re-affirms commitment to defend USS pension scheme

Another well attended branch meeting on 24th November heard a report from National HE Committee member Harriet Bradley, in which she said members were likely to be called on to take further action in January.  The Branch also agreed a resolution re-affirming the position adopted by UCU negotiators in September, and calling for a sector conference in January for all branches to discuss developments in the negotiations with employers currently underway. (more…)