University staff will be balloted on strike action before Christmas in a dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions.
The University and College Union (UCU) has announced it will open a ballot to members in October on whether or not to take industrial action this term.
The dispute comes after a joint negotiating committee backed pension proposals put forward by Universities UK (UUK) to deal with an estimated £15bn funding shortfall in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
The union argues that changes to the USS will mean that a typical lecturer on a £42,000 a year salary will lose 35% of their guaranteed retirement benefits.
UCU’s higher education committee has confirmed that strike ballots will open at 152 institutions across the UK on October 18.
Six institutions will be balloted on USS only, 83 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions, and another 63 institutions in the UK facing two ballots over both USS and pay and working conditions.
The union has warned that universities could face action that will disrupt the end of term and continue into the next term unless employers return to negotiations with better offers for both disputes.
The president of the National Union of Students (NUS) has offered her support for staff planning to take action, saying “students will hold employers responsible” if vice-chancellors do not come to “a negotiated settlement”.
The ballot will close on November 4, unless employers resolve the dispute beforehand, and UCU will consider the results on November 8 with action expected to take place before the end of the year.
It comes after strike action was held at universities across the UK in February and March in 2020, as well as in November and December in 2019, amid ongoing rows over staff pay, conditions and pensions.
Members of the UCU also took part in an unprecedented wave of strikes at universities in the spring of 2018 amid a dispute over pension reforms.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.
“The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.”
She added: “There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation which is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.”
NUS national president Larissa Kennedy added: “Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system.
“We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff and communities they exist to serve.
“Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff.
“If they don’t, students will hold employers responsible.”
A UUK spokesman on behalf of USS employers said: “We are disappointed UCU is campaigning for industrial action over reforms to USS, as they have not proposed a viable solution of their own.
“The USS Trustees’ assessment of the scheme’s costs means reforms are needed; no change is not an option. The employers’ reform proposal will prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions.
“UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result.
“The reforms voted for by the Joint Negotiating Committee ensure good benefits can be provided for affordable contributions, but employers will still consider alternative solutions.”
He added: “Universities are regrettably well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part.”
Raj Jethwa, chief executive of Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), said: “It is very disappointing that UCU seeks to kick-start another campaign to encourage its members to cause disruption for students through potentially damaging industrial action.”
He added: “The final offer from employers was fair and meaningful in the context of the sector’s ongoing delicate financial situation.
“We very much hope the trade union members understand the considerable pressures which continue to face their HE institutions.”