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The Open University branch of the University and College Union

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Information for students

If you’re an OU student, you might be affected by the UCU strike action. Some of your tutors won’t be working on the 24th, 25th and 30th of November. On this page we’ll explain why we’re taking action, how it affects you, and what you can do to help.

What is the UCU?

The UCU is the Universities and Colleges Union, a union of staff and postgraduate students who teach and work in universities and colleges across the UK. UCU is one of two unions at the Open University.

A union is a democratic collective of staff who negotiate for good and safe working conditions, fair pay, and a decent and equal working environment. The UCU negotiates with employers on behalf of staff at university and colleges across the UK. At the OU UCU represents academic staff including your tutors, and professional services staff that support the university’s work from the library to student services, finance, HR and many other areas.

What is a strike?

When a union takes strike action, we withhold our labour for a period of time – that is, we don’t work at all on the days of the strike. We also don’t get paid for these days.

During the strike, we hold in-person picket lines (demonstrations at the sites of the employer), rallies, and other face-to-face and online events, to raise awareness of employment issues and put pressure on management to negotiate.

This is not a decision we take lightly at all, and we only ever strike when negotiations with employers have broken down and we have no other alternative.

What happens to the pay deducted from staff on strike?

UCU has asked, as we always do, for any pay deductions from our members to go to the OU’s Student Support Fund to help students.

Why is the UCU striking now?

We’re striking over five things – pensions, pay, inequality, casualisation, and workload.

  • The pension is our retirement fund – it’s our main income after we retire. Our employers have repeatedly pushed through unnecessary cuts that will make us hundreds of thousands of pounds poorer in retirement, and we’re fighting to have these cuts reversed. Most recently in April 2022 our future pensions were cut by 35% (on average – worse for younger staff) but the pension fund is in surplus so these cuts could be reversed tomorrow without any cost to the university.
  • With the current cost-of-living crisis, pay is an issue that affects everyone. Since 2009 university staff have lost at least 25% against inflation. Currently inflation has hit a 40-year high which means staff are struggling to pay their bills. The pay offer from university employers is only 3% which means a real-terms pay cut of roughly 9% during this year on top of all the pay lost since 2009.
  • Inequality is about the way employers treat different groups of employees. In our sector, the pay gap between black and white staff stands at 17%, the disability pay gap is 9%, and the pay gap between men and women is 16%. This is grossly unfair and we are fighting to end it. The OU’s figures for the race pay gap and gender pay gap can be found here. The OU gender pay gap is going up every year instead of down, and the race pay gap is shocking. The OU does not currently publish a disability pay gap in part because the data are not very solid: anecdotally we know many staff do not feel safe in reporting that they have a disability.
  • Casualisation is when staff are on temporary, short-term or insecure contracts rather than permanent ones. This makes it hard for staff to budget from month to month, obtain a mortgage, or plan a family. More than half the teaching in UK higher education is done by staff without job security. The OU has led the way in placing all of its associate lecturers on permanent contracts in August 2022 – some of them had worked for the OU for 40 years but still had to apply periodically for their jobs. However, 90,000 other staff in the UK are still insecure, and we need to change this to ensure the best and most diverse population of teachers and university professionals, who have career progression and can raise a family.
  • Staff workloads are at an all-time high in higher education. A recent survey showed that the average academic staff member is working 53 hours a week! That’s about 2 extra days a week that are unpaid. A third of staff found their workload to be unmanageable some or all of the time. Workload is a substantial problem at the OU, where UCU has been raising this for over 4 years.

How do these issues affect me as a student?

We’re fighting to save the future of higher education, and that’s the future for students, too. Staff working conditions set the context for student learning conditions.

  • Lower pay and worse pensions make it harder for the OU to attract skilled, expert tutors to teach its courses – why work here when better pay and conditions are available elsewhere?
  • Unmanageable workloads make it impossible for staff to focus on students, and give you individual attention and a supportive learning environment.
  • Inequality, in addition to simply being unfair, leads to a university that doesn’t reflect or serve its diverse student base and communities across the Four Nations. Huge pay gaps don’t reflect OU values.
  • Some students will be hoping to go on to have careers in higher education, possibly as academics working in research, in teaching, or in other roles, after they graduate. In that case, all these issues will soon be your issues, too: we’re fighting for the next generation.

We never want to take strike action, and it’s not a decision we took lightly, but we’re hoping that by taking decisive action now, we can ensure effective and successful negotiations which haven’t happened up to now. The current situation is a result of degrading standards and loss of pay over more than a decade. This isn’t sustainable, and the issues will only get worse if we don’t act now.

What will happen that will affect me on the strike days?

Some of your tutors won’t be contactable at all on the strike days – the 24th, 25th and 30th of November – and tutorials on these days might be cancelled. Forums won’t be staffed, so questions posted there will not be answered until after the strike. TMA marking and responses to emails are likely to be delayed. Other student-facing areas such as Student Support and the Library will also be affected.

What can I do to show my support, or take part?

While the management try to pit staff and students against each other during times of strike action, we don’t see it that way at all. There are lots of things you can do to help support us with our strike, including:

  • If your tutor is striking, write to them and let them know you support them.
  • If you’re willing to be quoted (anonymously or by name) you can send a supportive message to ucu@open.ac.uk and we’ll put it on our website and social media.
  • Express your support on your social media and encourage family and friends to support. If you use Twitter follow us at @oubucu (local branch) and @ucu (national UCU). Use the hashtags #ucuRISING and #OUFamily.
  • Talk to your fellow students about the strike.
  • Contact the Vice-Chancellor (Professor Tim Blackman) at vice-chancellor@open.ac.uk and ask him to use his influence along with the other employers to negotiate a settlement to these disputes.
  • Support striking staff at a picket line – every university in the country will be on strike, so why not head along to one near you to show your support.
  • Donate to the UCU Fighting Fund or support the OU branch UCU Hardship Fund.
  • Follow us on Facebook.
  • Sign up to be a UCU supporter and use a supporter’s profile picture or Zoom background.