UK University Staff’s Potential Steps Towards Industrial Action


In the midst of coronavirus outbreaks amongst university students in the UK, the threat of staff taking industrial action over their institutions’ management has been looming. In recent weeks, hundreds of students across university campuses have tested positive for coronavirus leading to thousands being confined to their accommodations.

The University of Nottingham confirmed over 450 cases amongst its student population in early October; Northumbria University announced 770 and Newcastle University confirmed over 1000. In addition, many of these students have cited poor care and a lack of communication from their universities during the time they have been self-isolating.

There have also been disagreements between university staff and management, with unions demanding more rigorous safety measures, especially with some universities going ahead with a return to campus and in-person teaching. Proposed measures have included: making online learning the default forum for teaching and preventing students from returning until an effective track-and-trace system has been established.

The University and College Union, the largest union for university staff, welcomed the decision by many universities to move to online teaching but still stressed that universities needed to do more to support their staff and students.

UCU branches across universities, including Warwick and Leeds, have announced further moves towards disputes and industrial action. Vicky Blake, the union’s national president, stated that the recent votes represented a “storm brewing” amongst university staff due to them feeling “betrayed by their employers.”

On the other hand, Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the University and Colleges Employers Association stressed that employers had “planned tirelessly” on health and safety issues with both staff and students and therefore “any ballot for industrial action is naturally disappointing”.

Legal implications

  • Employees taking industrial action is significant move - they risk breaching terms in their contracts in hopes of generating change. This could lead to dismissals and, under some circumstances, employees could lose the right to claim unfair dismissal.

Commercial implications

  • Universities, that face strong threats of industrial action and frequent dissatisfaction with their management, may see declining numbers of staff and students in future years as less people are willing to attend.

  • Universities will face losses with facilities, such as on-campus cafes and restaurants, due to the overall decline of students on campus.

  • Despite the move to online teaching, students are still paying full tuition fees to their universities with no entitlement to automatic refunds as a result of COVID-19.


Cassandra is an aspiring solicitor with interests in retail and media, as well as the steps being taken to increase diversity at all levels within the legal sector.

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