The University and College Union (UCU) has failed to meet a mandatory 50 per cent turnout threshold in its ballot for strike action. Nationally, 69 per cent of members who responded to the postal ballot voted in favour of strike action.

Only four branches of 147 surpassed the required turnout, all of which overwhelmingly backed strike action: Bath College, Bradford College, New College Swindon, and Petroc.

The Trade Union Act 2016, brought in under David Cameron’s Conservative government, means turnout must be above 50 per cent in a ballot for strike action to go ahead. This means that, despite the overwhelming support for it amongst those who voted, there will only be strike action in the four institutions that surpassed 50 per cent turnout, as well as three institutions in Northern Ireland where the requirement does not apply: Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, and St Mary’s University College, Belfast.

Such a threshold means opponents of action may opt to abstain in order to undermine the validity of results rather than participating in ballots. This isn’t necessarily the case here as a consultative ballot over the summer received a similar result on a 47.7 per cent turnout nationally, which University of Liverpool UCU branch secretary Anthony O’Hanlon described as encouraging.

The ballot was part of the UCU’s pay dispute with Universities and Colleges Employer Association (UCEA), of which the University of Liverpool is a member. Fair and equal pay, including an end to the gender pay gap and casualisation of labour, are the union’s demands.

Rising living costs have meant academic staff took a 2.8 per cent hit to their pay from 2010/11 to 2015/16, their pay having increased by under one per cent from 2014/15 to 2015/16. UK universities recorded a surplus of £2.27 billion in 2016/17 while in the same year Vice-Chancellors saw a 3.2 per cent increase in their salary, benefits, bonuses and pension contributions. The UCEA offered an increase of 2 per cent for most staff and an increase of 2.8 per cent for the lowest paid workers.

The University of Liverpool’s surpluses have been highlighted by the Guild’s Cut the Rent campaign in relation to high accommodation costs in University halls.

In 2018 women at the University of Liverpool were reportedly paid 19 per cent less than men. Nationally, a survey found 78 per cent of academic staff in higher education found their workload unmanageable at least half the time, while on average they worked 50.9 full-time equivalent (FTE) hours a week. Some universities use hourly-paid staff to do 50 per cent of their teaching, but the average is 27 per cent.

Such issues remain despite the lack of industry-wide walk-outs, and the failure of talks between the UCU and UCEA from April to May 2018 must be overcome for this dispute to be resolved. Earlier in 2018, staff were on strike for 16 days across four weeks between 22 February and 16 March regarding the Universities Superannuation Scheme’s (USS) pension scheme.

A proposal from Universities UK, which holds eight of eighteen seats on the board of the UCEA, to remove the ‘defined benefit’ pension would have seen cuts of up to almost £10,000 a year from scheme members’ pensions. In April the UCU announced members had voted two to one to accept and offer from UUK, and the two parties agreed to jointly present plans to the USS Board and Pensions Regulator and to look again at the pensions valuation.

The University of Liverpool UCU branch have been asked for a comment.

No strike, for now.