The Universities and College Union (UCU) has made the moving following anger over a growing number of proposed redundancies in higher education institutions, claiming that one hundred universities have already signalled their intention to make job cuts.
UCU are seeking a national agreement which would ensure that any institution looking to axe jobs would have to make the case clearly and transparently.
The outcome of the ballot could bring higher education to a standstill, as was seen in 2006, when lecturers boycotted exams, marking and assessment, threatening the graduations of thousands of final-year university students.
Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, believes that employers have failed to react to the current situation, with a national agreement is needed to stop job losses and protect the higher education sector.
She said: “It is the failure of the employers to react to the growing crisis that has forced our hand. We need to get an agreement sorted now to stop a wide ranging cull of academic jobs without proper alternatives being considered.”
“We remain bewildered that the employers are opposed to the proposal which is in the interest of students, staff and the sector as a whole."
The action comes whilst negotiations are taking place over a new pay settlement for lecturers.
UCU are looking for an 8% pay rise for its members, whilst the Universities and Colleges Employer Association (UCEA) has only offered a rise of 0.3%. The UCEA says it is “bewildered” that the UCU intends to ballot its members.
Jocelyn Prudence, UCEA Chief Executive, described the campaign for industrial action as “wholly disingenuous”, as the UCU is misleading it own members of the nature of the ballot.
She said: “Attempts to conflate pay negotiations with scaremongering about local job losses in the sector are seriously misleading.”
The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES), which is currently negotiating the lecturer’s pay settlement, has no jurisdiction to negotiate or regulate jobs in the sector, as the employment of staff is a matter for each higher education institution.
UCEA’s position was supported by Sir Muir Russell, Principal of Glasgow University, pointing out that UCEA had no jurisdiction in the area of university employment.
In an open letter to staff, he said: “UCEA, the employer’s negotiating body, has now power to negotiate on this issue [redundancies] because the number of people a university employs is a decision for that institution.”
“It is difficult to see the mechanism by which a national dispute on this could be resolved.”
However, Ms Hunt said that nothing is stopping the employer’s association from negotiating an agreement.
She said: “There is nothing to prevent UCEA negotiating a national agreement to prevent job losses. In fact, in these exceptional financial circumstances, we think it is absolutely essential.”
UCU have described the 0.3% pay offer as ‘derisory’, whereas UCEA believe it is “a realistic, responsible and credible figure under the current circumstances”.
Lecturers current pay agreement expires at the end of July, a deal under which employees have seen an overall pay rise of at least 15%.
Ms Prudence believes that lecturer’s pay demands are unattainable in the current economic climate.
She said: “The HE sector is not immune from the exceptional economic environment.
“Like any other employment sector, HE institutions can only pay what can be afforded – meeting immoderate pay demands can only results in jobs losses and will not be understood by students or the general public.”
Sir Muir described the pay demands as “unaffordable and unrealistic” and believed strike action would have little support.
He said: “At this time of recession, when many in the UK are losing jobs, or seeing their hours and salaries reduced, industrial action in support of an 8% pay claim will gain little sympathy from the public and is likely to damage the reputation of our universities.”
Furthermore, he warned at any staff taking part in the strike would have their salaries withheld.