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UK universities and Scottish schools hit by strike action over pay and pensions

Almost every university in the UK and school in Scotland was hit by strikes on Thursday, as industrial unrest over pay and pensions spreads across the education sector.

Some 70,000 university workers are staging three walkouts this month in what their union has described as the largest co-ordinated action in the sector’s history. Scotland’s education union, meanwhile, closed schools in the biggest national strike since the 1980s.

The industrial action comes amid mounting unrest across the public sector at below-inflation pay rises and strain across the education system, already under pressure from tight budgets.

Across the country, staff at 150 universities walked out in action that the University and College Union said could affect 2.5mn students.

UCU members will also strike on Friday and November 30, in an escalation of a years-long dispute over pay and pensions. The row has resulted in weeks of walkouts since 2018, but this is the first time action has occurred across all universities, rather than being called by individual university branches.

Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, blamed the action on the “woeful” sector leadership. “Staff are burnt out, but they are fighting back,” she said. “They have had enough of falling pay, pension cuts and gig-economy working conditions.” 

The union has demanded a “meaningful” pay rise, after employers offered an increase starting at 3 per cent despite inflation last month hitting a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent. It has also called for a reversal of cuts to retirement benefits, made to plug a deficit in the sector’s pension fund that emerged as markets crashed at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Universities UK, which represents employers, said students were “well prepared to mitigate” the impact of strikes and that it had offered staff the “best possible” retirement benefits.

In Scotland, schools were closed on Thursday after the main teaching union this month voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.

Andrea Bradley, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said members “really did not want to be in this position”. But she argued that they had been “forced” to strike by the refusal of the Scottish government and Cosla, which represents councils, “to make any improvement” to their offer of a 5 per cent pay increase.

Following last-minute talks on Wednesday, the EIS rejected a revised offer of 6.85 per cent for the lowest-paid teachers, saying it amounted to an average 5.07 per cent increase. The union is asking for a 10 per cent rise for all members.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, on Wednesday said her government had put forward a “fair and reasonable” pay rise for all public sector staff, at a time of “sky high inflation”, that surpassed deals offered to staff in England.

“We are working not just within a fixed, but a heavily constrained budget,” said Sturgeon.

Teachers in schools across the rest of the UK are balloting for strike action, which is expected to take place next year.

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