Frequently asked questions

The national UCU website now has a fairly comprehensive set of answers to commonly asked questions about the USS dispute here: www.ucu.org.uk/uss-action-faqs. Below are questions and answers more specific to Cambridge, which we will keep updated in response to member queries (if your question isn’t answered here contact us on admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk).

Last updated: 20/02/18.

  1. Why are we striking?
  2. What have members voted for?
  3. What does striking involve?
  4. Can non-union members take part in the industrial action?
  5. What does action short of a strike entail?
  6. Are supervisions affected by the strike?
  7. I’m a PhD student. Can I strike?
  8. I’m on an hourly paid contract – what should I do?
  9. Are college duties other than teaching affected by the industrial action?
  10. My employer has asked me if I am going on strike/has demanded to know if I am going on strike. Do I have to tell them?
  11. What do I say to students?
  12. Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action?
  13. How much money will I lose?
  14. Is there a strike fund?
  15. Will striking affect my pension?
  16. What will the university do with the money saved off payroll?
  17. I am on leave during the strike days. Do I have to tell my employer that I will be on strike?
  18. Do I answer work emails from home?
  19. Can I go and do my own work in university buildings?
  20. What if I’m giving a talk/have external commitments on a strike day?
  21. If I work part-time will I have a full 1/365th deducted from my salary?
  22. I am not a UCU member. Can I take part in the strike?
  23. How late can someone join UCU and still take part in strike action?
  24. I’m a researcher fully funded by external bodies. Should I go on strike?
  25. I’m a UCU member but not a USS member. Should I go on strike?
  26. What can I do if I am…Not a union member/employed by someone other than the university/a student?
  27. What if I cannot complete all my weekly duties in 37 hours?
  28. Will I get pay docked for working to contract?
  29. What about answering emails?

Why are we striking?

    • Our pensions are being threatened with destructive changes
    • The employers want to end guaranteed pension benefits, making pensions. dependent on the performance of ‘investments’, not on our contributions.
    • Estimates of losses to retirement income range from between 10% to 40%, and more than £200 000 for a new starter.

What have members voted for? Members voted in a record turnout for both strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS). In Cambridge 89% of those who voted supported strike action, and 96% supported action short of a strike. Such action is a last resort, taken when other approaches have been exhausted. That is why we ask that every member observes the strike and ASOS. Not doing so undermines the union’s bargaining power and makes it harder for us to protect everyone.

What does striking involve? Not doing any work at all on the whole of the strike days. Do not enter university premises unless joining or visiting a picket line. In fact the best thing you can do on strike day is join a picket (details elsewhere on this site). Do not reschedule teaching done for the university. We are seeking advice about college teaching, see ‘Are supervisions affected by the strike?’.

Can non-union members take part in the industrial action? Non-union members who take part in legal, official industrial action have the same rights as union members not to be dismissed as a result of taking action. This is a legal industrial action, with specific official actions as part of the overall plan of action. However, while UCU would like everyone to respect the picket lines and not go into work, it is important you are aware that if you are not a UCU member we will not be able to support you if the institution decides to take disciplinary action against you. See here.

What does action short of a strike entail? Beginning on the first day of the action (Feb 22), on non-strike days until the end of the industrial action you should:

  • work to contract: stick to the terms of your employment contract (hours minus strike days, breaks, workload and so on). Check your offer letter, statement of terms and conditions or staff handbook (see more in ‘Working to Contract’ at the bottom of this page)
  • Not cover for colleagues unless required by your contract
  • Not reschedule teaching cancelled due to strike action
  • Not carry out voluntary activities: if you have a choice to do some work, do not do it

In all of the above cases say why you are doing what you’re doing! And if challenged by management, suspend your particular action and email us (strike-committee@ucu.cam.ac.uk). We’ll then get advice from our national office.

Are supervisions affected by the strike?

Any duties, including supervisions, organised by a faculty or department (e.g. through a paper convener or teaching administrator) come under the remit of the strike. You should cancel these and not reschedule them.  If students in these circumstances ask for clarification, you can confirm that the strike action is likely to take place on the announced days, but tell them you cannot say whether you will be striking.

However, our dispute is with the University, not with the colleges. Teaching and other duties organised within and between colleges (generally those arranged by a Director of Studies or connected to a college office such as Tutor) are therefore unaffected. But in these cases we ask, if at all possible, that you:

  • reschedule your supervisions to non-strike days, explaining the reason to your student
  • avoid giving supervisions on university premises, for example by using teaching rooms in colleges. These measures will increase the impact of the strike without undermining the performance of college employment duties.

We realise that the distinctions involved here can be complex. If you’re unsure about a particular case, email us at strike-committee@ucu.cam.ac.uk.

I’m a PhD student. Can I strike?
Yes. You can cancel any paid work you do under contract for the university on grounds of the strike. But supervisions organised by colleges are unaffected: see the advice immediately above.

I’m on an hourly paid contract – what should I do? If you have been balloted for strike action, then you should not work on strike days. If this has the potential to put you into financial difficulties, please see the information below regarding ‘the strike fund’.

Are college duties other than teaching affected by the industrial action? No. Because colleges are not part of the dispute, duties relating solely to your college employment or terms of your college fellowship, do not fall under the remit of the industrial action.

My employer has asked me if I am going on strike/has demanded to know if I am going on strike. Do I have to tell them? No. Some administrators use phrases such as ‘you will need to notify your department’ or ‘you will need to complete and return this form as soon as possible’. You have no legal or contractual requirement to do so in advance of taking strike action and UCU recommends that you do not. However if your manager asks you after the strike whether you took action, you should answer truthfully.

What do I say to students? We know that members don’t like disrupting student education. But this strike will defend the interests of staff and students alike; undermining it will only serve to encourage management and we will all suffer more in the longer term. For these reasons the National Union of Students supports our strike, as do Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU), who are calling on students not to cross picket lines and to complain instead to management on behalf of staff.

It is management’s responsibility to explain to students if lectures and classes are to be cancelled on strike days. By all means indicate to students that they should check on the day to see whether lectures/tutorials are still on. But avoid telling students for certain that you won’t be teaching.

You may wish to to talk to your students before the strikes explaining why the union is taking this action. There is a UCU video which has been developed for this purpose. Contact us for template letters: admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk.

Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action? All effective industrial action may be a breach of your contract of employment. But because UCU has carried out a statutory ballot and the action has been formally called, the law protects workers from dismissal whilst taking part in lawful industrial action or at any time within 12 weeks of the start of the action and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place later. This kind of dismissal has never happened in higher education.

How much money will I lose? Cambridge will deduct 1/365th of your annual salary for each day you participate in strike action. Working to contract on non-strike days is also part of the industrial action, but providing that you fulfil actions within your contractual obligations, the university will have no legal basis for docking your pay.

Is there a strike fund? Yes. We want all members to be able to exercise their right to strike, including those who may face potential financial hardship. The union will provide strike pay based on £50 per day. Priority will be given to those on insecure contracts and/or low earnings. For details see here.

Will striking affect my pension? No. Like most university employers, Cambridge will not withhold pension contributions. Full employer’s and employee’s contributions will be paid to USS as usual. Worth remembering when counting the cost of striking.

What will the university do with the money saved off payroll? Cambridge have agreed that docked pay will go into to the student hardship fund. Emphasise this to students!

I am on leave during the strike days. Do I have to tell my employer that I will be on strike? No. You might want to tell them after the action and claim back your leave if pay is deducted. Or you might want to cancel your leave and take strike action instead. But you are not required to notify the employer in advance.

Do I answer work emails from home? Not on strike days. We suggest you use the following automated reply:

I will not be responding to work-related emails on 22-23 Feb (Th-F), 26-28 Feb (M-W), 5-8 March (M-Th), 12-16 March (M-F), because I will be on strike.

The University and College Union is taking industrial action because university staff pensions are being threatened with destructive changes that will make pensions dependent on the performance of ‘investments’. These changes transfer all risk to individual staff, lead to estimated losses of retirement income ranging from between 10% to 40%, and are part of a wider marketisation of higher education. You can find out more about the dispute here: www.ucu.cam.ac.uk/pensions

Can I go and do my own work in university buildings? No, that also constitutes breaking the strike.

What if I’m giving a talk/have external commitments on a strike day? We ask that you do not give talks or seminars at either Cambridge or other USS-member (i.e. pre-92 UK) universities on strike days. We need to make clear that business is not continuing as usual for the duration of the strike, and that other universities can be affected too. Of course these forms of disruption may bother our employers less than cancelling teaching, but it is vital to prevent the university using our continued activity for their PR.

If I work part-time will I have a full 1/365th deducted from my salary? No. Cambridge calculates deductions on a pro-rata basis for part time staff.

I am not a UCU member. Can I take part in the strike? We would like everyone to respect the picket lines and not go into work, but if you are not a UCU member we will not be able to support you if the university decides to take disciplinary action against you. However, it is your general support that counts: if you can get permission from your line manager to take annual leave or work from home, this would be support.

How late can someone join UCU and still take part in strike action? People can join the union at any point up to and including on the picket line, and lawfully join the strike. You can join UCU online at www.ucu.org.uk/join or call is: 0333 207 0719.

I’m a researcher fully funded by external bodies. Should I go on strike? You are an employee of Cambridge University wherever your funding comes from. If you are a UCU member you are asked to take part in the strike along with your other academic colleagues. Please join the picket line as well! If you are not a UCU member, you can support the effectiveness of the strike action by working from home or taking a day’s leave rather than coming to your workplace.

I’m a UCU member but not a USS member. Should I go on strike? Yes. If you have been balloted in this dispute, then you should go on strike alongside your colleagues. All Cambridge UCU members who hold a contract of employment at Cambridge University have been balloted for strike action.

What can I do if I am…

  • Not a union member
  • Employed by someone other than the university
  • A student

…what can I do?

Show your support! Come to  meetings (open to members and non-members), visit our pickets and talk to your friends and colleagues about the industrial action.

And join the union! You can join at any point up to and including on the picket line on the day of action and still lawfully join the strike. Membership is free for PhD students (including those who teach), and dues above that are proportional to your earnings: https://www.ucu.org.uk/join

Working to contract


What if I cannot complete all my weekly duties in 37 hours? Work that you cannot reasonably complete in one week should be carried forward to the next. If you cannot complete your normal contractual duties within 37 hours, inform your manager or colleague that you are engaged in UCU’s ‘action short of a strike’ and that you will be unable to meet competing priorities.

In the case of a manager, you should ask them to tell you in writing which tasks the university wishes you to prioritise. Please note that we are not asking you to to decide not to do tasks within your contractual responsibility to undertake.

Will I get pay docked for working to contract? No. Our understanding from the university is that pay will not be docked for working to contract.

What about answering emails? Use this as your auto-response:

Please note I am ‘working to contract’ as part of the UCU industrial action in defense of pensions. This may mean it takes longer for me to respond to emails. You can find out more about the dispute here: www.ucu.org.uk/uss.

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