The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) said member institutions were confident the strike, which began on Wednesday, would cause minimal disruption and reassured students facing end-of-year exams there would be “no to low” impact.
Members of the University and College Union are taking industrial action after talks to resolve a dispute over a 1.1% pay offer collapsed last week.
In addition to the two-day walkout, the UCU is warning that further action in coming weeks could disrupt graduation ceremonies, open days and the university clearing process. There are also plans for a boycott of the setting and marking of students’ work to begin in the autumn.
Striking staff posted pictures on Twitter of picket lines at universities up and down the country amid numerous expressions of support, but a UCEA spokesperson said universities were expecting little or no disruption.
“Our HE institutions tell us that they anticipate minor impact and minimal student disruption from UCU’s planned strike days this week,” said the spokesperson. “They know that the vast majority of their staff understand the current funding environment and can see that the final offer, with substantial extra for the lower paid, endeavours to be fair without putting additional jobs at risk.
“HE institutions overwhelmingly tell us they are anticipating ‘no to low’ impacts on both days. Even for examinations, which are still taking place at some HE institutions, more than nine out of 10 report that a ‘no to low impact’ is anticipated.”
The UCU said the value of university staff pay had declined in real terms by 14.5% since 2009. The union is also concerned about the increasingly insecure nature of employment in universities, with 75,000 staff on casualised contracts, and the continuing gender inequality in pay, with a male member of staff earning on average 12.6% more than a female one.
The UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, has dismissed the 1.1% pay offer as “an insult” in the context of university vice-chancellors receiving a 5.1% increase in pay and benefits last year.
“Members have made it clear that they won’t tolerate a continued squeeze on their income, pay inequality and the increasing job insecurity blighting the sector,” she said.
“If the employers wish to see a swift end to this dispute and avoid further disruption they need to come back to the table with a much improved offer.”
The UCU said later it was getting reports of strong picket lines across the country, with more support expected tomorrow and plans for 13 city-based rallies.
Hunt, who was due to address a rally in Manchester on Wednesday, said: “We are getting reports of really solid support from picket lines across the UK. It is a disgrace that the employers’ intransigence over pay and conditions for university staff has forced us out on strike.
“We hope universities will now come back to us with a decent offer and we can avoid further disruption.”
As well as the two-day strike, protests are planned in cities around the UK, with rallies in Belfast, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, among others. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is expected to speak at a London rally.
Employers described the industrial action as “disappointing given the very good pay offer, plus the joint work on gender pay and casual employment that is on the table”.
The UCEA spokesperson said: “We would like to see UCU consulting its members on the final offer rather than seeking to take action that could damage institutions and harm their students.”
Unite, which has about 12,000 members in the higher education sector, said it was consulting on the possibility of joining the action. A ballot closes on 6 June. The Unite national officer, Mike McCartney, said: “We are calling on Unite members to reject the offer on the table. They have seen their pay slashed over recent years, while many university bosses are raking in more than the prime minister.
“Clearly there is unfairness in the pay system and that hurts our members, who are mainly technicians, porters and cleaning staff without whom universities would not function. These are the workers who are the key to providing a good student experience.”