The Best Student Life. Bristol SU

UCU Strike Information

Following 8 days of strikes in November and December 2019, University of Bristol staff will be striking for 14 days in February and March starting from Thursday 20 February. Lecturers and other staff who are part of the University and College Union (UCU) voted for this strike in October. Their aim is to stop changes to university pensions and challenge poor pay and working conditions. Outside of strike days, UCU members will also be taking “action short of a strike” (see our FAQs below for more on what that means).  

Some university staff will not be working on strike days so seminars, lectures and tutorials might get cancelled. These actions will disrupt our teaching and learning in the short term, but we believe that any action will be in the long term interests of all students to ensure we retain the best quality teaching staff at the university and so will be supporting the strikes.

In particular, our members who are PGR students may be taking part in the strike, and we will support them for the benefit of their future academic careers.  Supporting the strike is in line with the policy proposed and passed by students at our 2018 Annual Members Meeting. 

Bristol SU will be working with the University of Bristol and UCU to ensure our students and our lecturers are properly supported throughout the period of the industrial dispute. 

More info about the strikes

+ What is the strike about?

UCU members are currently involved in two separate disputes with Universities: one relating to pay and working conditions, and another relating to pensions. These issues are negotiated at a national level between representative bodies of Universities (e.g. UUK) and workers (e.g. UCU). Strikes are a legitimate tactic used by trade unions when they feel that the bodies they are negotiating with are not meeting their demands or making a reasonable compromise to resolve the issues they raise, and are generally seen as a last resort. 

On pay and working conditions, UCU argues that staff pay at Universities has dropped by over 20% in real-terms since 2009, meaning staff are being paid almost a fifth less than they would be if pay had kept pace with inflation (RPI) over this period. In addition, they argue staff’s working conditions have deteriorated, with increasing use of short-term, insecure or casual contracts which leave staff at risk, and excessive workloads which impact staff wellbeing. 

On pensions, UCU argues that a series of changes to a nationwide pension scheme for University staff (USS) since 2011 mean a typical UCU member is around £240,000 worse off than they would have been without the changes. Over the past few months, further changes have been proposed which would mean UCU members have to contribute more for their pensions (9.6% rather than 8.8% of their salary) and they expect that this number will be raised further in 2021. 

+ When are the strike days?

Strikes are planned for 14 working days across four weeks in February and March, starting on Thursday 20 February.

Week one - Thursday 20 & Friday 21 February
Week two - Monday 24, Tuesday 25 & Wednesday 26 February
Week three - Monday 2, Tuesday 3, Wednesday 4 & Thursday 5 March
Week four - Monday 9, Tuesday 10, Wednesday 11, Thursday 12 & Friday 13 March

+ What is action short of a strike?

Action short of a strike means that staff will not be doing any work beyond what is required to fulfil their contract; this includes not working extra hours, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action and not undertaking any voluntary activities. Bristol SU supports the University decision to ask staff that are taking action short of a strike to prioritise the following work: (1) supporting student wellbeing, (2) preparing and delivering teaching, (3) marking and feedback on assessments. 

+ Will all staff be on strike?

No, not all staff will be on strike. Some staff are members of other trade unions who have not secured a mandate to go on strike and so permitted to. UCU members have secured a mandate to go on strike and non-union members are permitted to strike – they will make a personal choice about whether to take part in the industrial action.  Lecturers do not have to notify the University before they go on strike so we cannot know exactly who will strike on any given day. In our experience, many lecturers will let you know if your teaching is going to be cancelled.

+ What is a picket line?

A picket line is a boundary established by staff on strike, especially at the entrance to the place of work, which striking staff ask others not to cross. It is likely that you will see picket lines outside some University buildings on strikes days, with staff holding placards, handing out campaign materials and talking to students and staff about their cause. In our experience they are peaceful and friendly demonstrations, so please don’t feel like there is anything to be nervous about if you see them.

+ Can I get a refund from the University?

You have the right to make a complaint and seek financial compensation if the University doesn’t make proper arrangements to make up for the impact of the strike. You can see more guidance on this here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/for-students/guidance-for-students-affected-by-industrial-action/ 

We aren’t actively encouraging students to make these claims – instead, our priority is to work with the University to ensure the right arrangements are put in place and your education isn’t disadvantaged. We will focus on: 

1) Making sure the University puts good arrangements in place to ensure students aren’t disadvantaged in assessment due to the strike. This means making sure there are appropriate changes made to assessment deadlines, methods and content, and ensuring there are good extenuating circumstance and appeal procedures in place that really work for students. We will also be asking the university to make the approach to this as consistent as possible between different courses. 

2) Making sure the University puts in place good arrangements to make up for the lost educational experience for students during the strike, but that this isn’t done in a way which undermines the strikes. This means we will be looking for creative ways to help you feel like you haven’t missed out on key learning from your course, without asking striking staff to just rearrange lectures and seminars after the strike. 

We will also work with the University to ensure that any money they do save from the salaries of striking lecturers is reinvested to support the experience of current students – we think this will be a greater benefit to the student community than asking for small individual refunds to be made to students. 

If you do feel that the University has failed to put the right arrangements in place and want to make a complaint, the SU’s independent advice service, Just Ask, is on hand to help you. Our advisers can help you understand the guidance on making claims for refunds and support you through complaints and appeals processes.

+ Will there be more strikes this academic year?

Strike mandates are only valid for six months, so the Bristol UCU branch will need to secure a fresh mandate to be able to continue to take action after April. However, UCU has warned that it will ballot members after this wave of strikes if the disputes cannot be resolved.

More info about what the SU is doing

+ Does Bristol SU support the strikes?

Yes, we believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that it is vital for students to come together to support our lecturers, as well as our postgraduate students who teach.

+ How did Bristol SU come to this position?

Students overwhelmingly voted for a policy to support University staff striking on pensions or other issues at our 2018 Annual Members Meeting. This policy lasts for 3 years, so clearly directed us to support the strikes that have just been announced. 

+ What is the SU doing to support students whose teaching and learning is disrupted by the strikes?

We have spoken to the university to pass on your experiences from the strikes in November and December 2019. We are aware that there is more concern about this second round of strikes on your academic experience and will keep working with the university to make sure that you are not unfairly disadvantaged by them.

Bristol SU officers and staff meet with UCU representatives and University staff regularly to ensure students are properly supported during the strikes. In these meetings, we aim to make sure no student is unfairly disadvantaged by the strike. 

Through this work, our aims are to: 

  • Make sure the University puts good arrangements in place to ensure students aren’t disadvantaged in assessment due to the strike. This means making sure there are appropriate changes made to assessment deadlines, methods and content, and ensuring there are good extenuating circumstance and appeal procedures in place that really work for students. We will also be asking the university to make the approach to this as consistent as possible between different courses. 
  • Make sure the University puts in place good arrangements to make up for the lost educational experience for students during the strike, but that this isn’t done in a way which undermines the strikes. This means we will be looking for creative ways to help you feel like you haven’t missed out on key learning from your course, without asking striking staff to just rearrange lectures and seminars after the strike. 
  • Ensure the university prioritise the following activities throughout the dispute period: support for student wellbeing, teaching, and marking assessments 
  • Ensure that withheld pay is spent to support current students, providing services that will be of real benefit to students 
  • Ensure that the needs of groups of students who might be particularly affected by the strikes, particularly international students, will be a key consideration in all of the work done in relation to the strikes 

If you feel that your studies have been unfairly disadvantaged by the strike, you can seek advice from our independent team of advisors in Just Ask

+ What is the SU doing to support lecturers who are striking?

Throughout the industrial dispute, Bristol SU will: 

  • Meet regularly with UCU to understand how we can support them effectively 
  • Continue to push the University to lobby UUK and other Universities to go back to the negotiating table, in line with our letter to the Vice Chancellor 
  • Provide campaign support and funding to student-led actions in support of UCU 
  • Inform students about issues relating to the strike, and ways in which they can support their lecturers to encourage students to support the strike action 
+ What can I do to support lecturers who are striking?

A common way that you might be asked to show support to striking staff is to avoid “crossing picket lines” during the strike, e.g. by not attending teaching on strike days. The University advise that students who chose not to cross picket lines will need to take personal responsibility for the teaching and learning that they will be missing. We believe it is up to individual students to make up their minds about whether to cross picket lines, but will ensure that students are informed about this is as a way of supporting the strikes. 

Other ways that you can support striking staff are: 

  • Like UCU Bristol on Facebook and attend any rallies or teach-outs that are advertised 

  • Join UCU if you are a postgraduate student 

  • Write to key decision-makers (e.g. the Vice Chancellor or UUK) highlighting your support for UCU’s demands and asking them to go back to the negotiating table 

+ Why isn't the SU asking the University to use withheld pay to reimburse tuition fees?

We understand that many students will feel frustrated that tuition which they have paid for is going to be disrupted by strike action and may wish to see money saved on striking workers’ pay used to provide compensation or reimbursement of their fees. We aren’t actively advocating for this for a couple of reasons: 

  • The amount of money actually saved on pay during a strike would be relatively small when you spread it out amongst all students because your fees are spent on much more than just lecturers’ salaries, so would not provide a huge benefit to individual students 
  • We believe that this amount of money can provide greater benefit to the student body if it is used to provide alternative educational experiences and services for current students. These should help minimise the loss of teaching and learning due to the strike, and support you to succeed on your course 

With this in mind, the SU’s priority is to push the University to minimise any adverse affect to your education and assessment as a result of the strike, and to work with students to find the best ways to spend any money saved to benefit those affected. 

Following the strikes in November/December 2019 we held a consultation on how withheld pay from the strikes period should be spent. Key findings were:

  • Students believe that the money should be primarily spent on academic and wellbeing activities
  • Home and EU students have different opinions on how to prioritise spending compared to international students
  • Students have a preference for the money to benefit as many as possible, but there is notable support for the money to support those most in need.
  • There is a strong preference for the money to be spent to benefit current students who have been impacted by the industrial action.

However, we are committed to providing students with information about their rights and support in making individual or group claims for compensation if they feel these arrangements aren’t sufficient and they have been disadvantaged as a result of the strikes. See our section above: “Can I get a refund from the University?” 

More info about how the strikes might affect students

+ Will the strikes affect my lectures, seminars and tutorials?

Only some lectures, seminars and tutorials will be cancelled due to strike action. Striking staff do not need to notify the University before they go on strike, so it is not possible to know in advance which teaching will be affected. In our experience, many striking staff will choose to let students know in advance if they are going to go on strike. We will be working with our network of course reps to look for ways that we can help disseminate any information about cancelled teaching to affected students. 

+ I am a student and I don’t want to cross the picket line. Where does that leave me?

Picket lines are likely to be peaceful and friendly. We know that UCU members appreciate the show of solidarity from students who choose not to cross the picket lines, e.g. by not attending teaching on strike days. If you do not cross the picket line, the University expects you to take personal responsibility for missed teaching and learning.  

UCU aims to organise a series of teach-outs on different topics during the strikes which you could attend – these will be advertised on UCU Bristol Facebook. You could also look at alternatives such as organising group study sessions with others from your course instead of attending scheduled teaching on strike days. 

+ Are university facilities, libraries and study spaces still open?

Yes, all University buildings are planned to be open as usual.

+ Will student services (e.g. the health service or careers) still be open and available?

Some student services staff may be members of UCU and on strike but the services will generally remain open. If individual appointments are cancelled, you will usually receive an email to let you know in advance.

+ Will the strikes affect my exams or assessments?

Bristol SU is working with the University to make arrangements for students where missed teaching due to strike action may affect their exams or assessments. This might include coursework extensions or changed exam content.

You should receive communications from your School to explain any alternative arrangements for your exams or assessments. If you are worried about the impact that the strikes might have on your exams or assessments, please contact staff within your school in the first instance.

+ I am an international student - will the strikes affect my visa?

Your visa should not be affected by strikes. If your lecturers are on strike, you will be given an authorised absence with a note to say that your absence is due to strikes. If your lecturers are not on strike, attendance monitoring will continue as normal. We have asked the University to ensure they provide specific information to international students about the strikes, but if you have any questions please contact Student Visa Services at the University - http://www.bristol.ac.uk/directory/visas/contacts/ 

+ I am a PhD student - will the strikes affect my viva?

If you have a viva that is scheduled for a strike day, the University should email you on an individual basis to let you know whether the viva will be taking place. You should assume that your viva will go ahead unless you hear otherwise.

+ I feel like the strikes are stressing me out and affecting my mental health. What can I do?

Make sure you take time to de-stress and talk about what's bothering you with those around you. The student counselling service have lots of tools for relaxation and stress management that you can find here.

You may also want to speak to someone within the University and you can find details of the support available here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/students/wellbeing/.

+ I feel that I have been unfairly disadvantaged by the strikes - what can I do about this?

Bristol SU is working closely with University of Bristol staff to ensure that no student should be unfairly disadvantaged by the strike - for example, to make sure that students who have missed out on teaching can get changes or extensions to their assessments.

However, if you feel that you have been unfairly impacted by the strikes, you can speak to one of our Just Ask advisors who can advise you on how to tell the University about any extenuating circumstances, submit a complaint, or even appeal a final result.

To contact a Just Ask advisor, please email bristolsu-justask@bristol.ac.uk.

I still have questions

If you would like more information on how the strike action is affecting University teaching and services, please see the University’s FAQs for students.  

If you would like more information on the pensions dispute and how to support our lecturers, please see UCU’s web pages about the strikes. 

To contact a Bristol SU Officer to discuss the impact of the strike on students, please email your Undergraduate Education Officer, hillary.gyebi-ababio@bristol.ac.uk, or your Postgraduate Officer, christopher.brasnett@bristol.ac.uk

For further advice on what to do if the strikes are affecting your studies, please email bristolsu-justask@bristol.ac.uk