Belfast Telegraph

'Serious' talks call as university staff prepare to strike

Frustration: Jo Grady
Frustration: Jo Grady

By Christopher Leebody

Northern Ireland's two main universities are set to face a disruptive eight-day strike that will hit students just before the busy end of term period unless they "start talking to us seriously", a union has said.

The University & College Union (UCU), which represents more than 120,000 higher education staff, previously backed the strike action at the start of this month as a result of disputes concerning pay and working conditions.

The strike - set to run from November 25 to December 4 - will affect local universities alongside 60 other institutions nationwide, with the UCU having 583 members at Ulster University and 933 at Queen's University, Belfast.

With the strike ending just over a week before the scheduled last day of term on December 13 at Queen's University and December 16 at Ulster University, the action is likely to see disruption to valuable teaching, exam-time lectures, administrative support and other activities in the run up to the festive break.

The Student Union bodies at both Queen's and Ulster University were holding meetings last night to discuss their response to the action.

Responding to the upcoming walkout, a spokesperson for Ulster University said: "We recognise that both matters under dispute are important to our staff and our organisation.

"These issues are part of a national dispute and we continue to advocate for a resolution without the need for any industrial action.

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"However, we are now making the necessary plans and preparations in order to minimise any potential disruption on our campuses as a result of the proposed industrial action. We will do everything possible to safeguard both the student and staff experience during this time."

Queen's was unable to provide a response before publication.

The turnout for the ballot action in the two Northern Ireland universities was lower than the rest of the UK - with 53% of members voting on the action on pensions and 49% voting to strike on pay and conditions.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady dismissed low turnout criticism and urged the universities to engage with members.

She said: "The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions.

"Any general election candidate would be over the moon with a result along the lines of what we achieved.

"Universities can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on these issues and we will be consulting branches whose desire to strike was frustrated by anti-union laws about reballoting.

"The results can only be interpreted as clear support for strike action over pensions, pay and working conditions. The ballots reflect just how unhappy and angry staff are at the state of higher education in the UK."

This latest strike follows on the back of a similar stance taken in February last year in which academic and non-academic staff at both of Northern Ireland's universities picketed outside campuses as a result of changes to staff pensions.

Ms Grady added: "It is incredibly frustrating that we had to ballot members again, but universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions."

While the action is due to conclude on December 4, the UCU said members will continue to take "action short of a strike" after this date, including working strictly to contract and not covering for absent colleagues.

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