Thousands of university staff will launch an eight-day strike on Monday in disputes over pay, conditions and pensions, with further industrial action being threatened if agreements cannot be reached.
Up to 43,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) at 60 UK universities will walk out, disrupting lectures for over a million students in the run up to the Christmas break.
Picket lines will be mounted at campuses across the country, protests will be held and other forms of industrial action will be launched including not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.
Those going on strike include lecturers, student support services staff, admissions tutors, librarians, technicians and administrators.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady warned that a second wave of strikes could be held in the new year if the deadlocked disputes remain unresolved.
University leaders say they will try to lessen the impact of the action and insist they want to work with the union to reach an agreement.
But the UCU said staff had reached “breaking point” over a number of issues, including workloads, real-terms cuts in pay, a 15% gender pay gap and changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which the union says will leave members paying in more and receiving less in retirement.
Many universities were also employing academic staff on “discredited” zero hours contracts, said the union.
“The employers seem to want to test the mettle of staff and see if they will turn up on picket lines,” said Ms Grady.
“It is really unfortunate they have decided to do that because they are misjudging their staff. More and more people are joining the union and there is a real feeling of anger.
“There could be a second wave of strikes if we don’t get a long term, sustainable offer and universities refuse to take our concerns seriously.”
The union estimated that the pension changes could leave lecturers around £240,000 worse off in retirement over their career, and up to £730,000 for professors.
Carol Costello, spokesman for the employers’ side, said: “We will do all we can to ensure the strike does not impact badly on students and staff.
“The action and claims of the UCU that employers are forcing them into this cannot go unchallenged.”
The union was insisting that employers should pay the full cost of an increase in pension contributions and had not been prepared to compromise, she said.
“It has been a complete red line for them and has made negotiating impossible.
“It suggests a lack of willingness to recognise the reality of the situation.
“Employers are prepared to invest in our people, but unaffordable sums of money would have to be diverted from other budgets unless individual members make a fair contribution.”
This could include cuts to courses and larger class sizes, which would have a damaging impact on students, she said.
She maintained that university employers were committed to ensuring staff had access to one of the best pension schemes in the country.
Universities were working hard to ensure that students do not miss out or are disadvantaged by the strikes, she added.
University leaders have written to the union outlining their commitment to deliver long-term reform of the USS.
The strikes will take place on five days this week, and again for three days from December 2.
Chris Sayers, chairman of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), said: “University staff are at the heart of the sector’s teaching and research success and CUC fully supports this being recognised and reflected through their employment packages.
“Pensions in USS are excellent, but the scheme has to remain affordable in order for institutions to balance their investment in people with the wider university environment.
“Against a backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty and financial pressure, the role of university boards and councils has to be to ensure the long-term sustainability of their institutions, and therefore they have to balance the investment they want to make in people against all the other calls on their resources.”
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “Fair pay, secure contracts, reasonable workloads and decent, affordable pensions should come as standard for all those working in education, including in our universities.
“Thousands are on strike today because that simply isn’t the case in the increasingly marketised system that the Tories have created. Labour will end the failed free market experiment in education and instead put staff and students first.
“It is time for the employers to put their students first and avoid any further disruption by bringing a reasonable offer back to the negotiating table.”