UNIVERSITIES face being brought “to a standstill” by a fresh wave of strikes after an overwhelming majority of trade union members voted for industrial action.

The University and College Union (UCU) said more than eight in 10 members who voted backed walking out.

In a ballot on pay and working conditions, the yes vote for strike action was 81.1% and the turnout was 57.8%, the UCU said.

The union said in a ballot on pensions, the yes vote for strike action was 84.9% and the turnout was 60.2% while staff also voted yes overwhelmingly for action short of striking in both ballots.

More than 70,000 university staff will down tools at 150 universities across the UK.

Universities UK, the body higher education institutions across the country, said it would work to minimise the impact of strikes if they went ahead.  

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The UCU said its higher education committee will meet on Tuesday, November 3 to decide what steps it takes next.

The union said university staff are facing poverty amid the cost-of-living crisis, and has demanded a 12% pay uplift – in line with inflation, according to the Retail Price Index (RPI) – plus an additional 2%.

In May, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents higher education institutions in pay talks, announced a scheme of graded pay rises, starting at 9% for the lowest paid staff and reducing to 3% for those on higher salaries, which came in in August. 

The UCU also said university staff, on average, work an additional two days per week unpaid due to excessive workloads, while a third of academic staff are on insecure contracts.

Meanwhile it is fighting cuts to a pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which the union said would mean a typical member would lose 35% of their guaranteed retirement income.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Today history has been made by our members in universities, who in huge numbers have delivered an unprecedented mandate for strike action.

“The vice chancellors who run universities have repeatedly and in a coordinated fashion come after our members. Well, now it's 150 bosses against 70,000 university workers who are ready and willing to bring the entire sector to a standstill, if serious negotiations don't start very soon.

“University staff are crucial workers in communities up and down the UK. They are sending a clear message that they will not accept falling pay, insecure employment and attacks on pensions.

"They know their power and are ready to take back what is theirs from a sector raking in tens of billions of pounds.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: "We understand that the ballot results may leave students concerned about the impact that potential industrial action could have on their degrees.

"Universities are adept at mitigating the impact of strikes on student learning, and so prepared for any further possible industrial action over the coming months.

"Universities will put in place a series of measures to minimise the impact of any industrial action on students, other staff and the wider community.

“Employer contributions to USS pensions, which rose to 21.6% of salary in April, are among the highest in the country and at the very limit of affordability.  

"This contribution rise, together with the significant covenant commitments made by employers, lessened the benefit reforms and avoided huge cost increases for both employers and staff in the last scheme valuation.

"This support from employers alongside the effects of rising interest rates on the scheme explains why USS now appears to be in better financial shape.

“The USS Trustee will conduct a full valuation scheduled for March 2023, at which point stakeholders will be able to consider any improvements to the scheme which could be made in a sustainable way. 

"However, at this time and in the current volatile economic climate, the USS Trustee insists that there is no solid evidence or basis to establish a long-term view of any substantive improvement in the scheme’s funding position. 

“We continue to meet union and USS representatives regularly. Should UCU decide to take industrial action, unfortunately this is likely to impede joint working on the next valuation, and delay much-needed changes such as governance reform of the scheme and the introduction of lower cost options for members.”