UNIVERSITY staff have started an eight-day strike over workloads, casual contracts and pensions.

In Durham, there were four pickets at locations around the city, where academic staff were chanting, handing out leaflets and chatting to students on their way to class.

They were among tens of thousands of staff from 60 universities across the country, who are taking industrial action because of concerns about their working conditions.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted to strike, as well as take action short of a strike, in a ballot earlier this year over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which the union says will leave members paying in more and receiving less in retirement. as well as issues including workloads, the gender pay gap and short-term contracts.

The Northern Echo:

Durham University staff on the picket line

Siobhan McGrath, an assistant professor in human geography, said: "This is a culmination of a lot of issues that have brought us to breaking point.

"It's not just about pensions; it's casualisation and insecurity and workloads."

She added: "I think we are all pretty shocked we have to be out here. What we really want is a commitment to make changes. These are things they say they want to work on.

"We are asking them to make changes that make a difference to people's lives.

"It's not easy to be on strike. I can't really afford it with Christmas coming up. None of us can.

"Our university can have an influence. Our vice-chancellor can absolutely make a difference."

The union was in talks with representatives from UK universities last week but said a "serious offer" had not been made to avert the strike.

Jon Bryan, regional support official for UCU, said: "The turnout is really good. It shows the strength of feeling that people have on pensions and all the issues we are on strike about. We are trying to push the university on casual contracts. There are a significant number of people on precarious contracts so people don't have security.

The Northern Echo:

Durham University staff on the picket line

"The gender pay gap is another issue that's a big concern for us."

He added: "People are making a big financial commitment to be taking action but they are willing to do it in the run-up to Christmas. It shows how strongly people feel. They are willing to put up with some short term pain for long term gain."

Durham's vice-chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge said: “We are aware that there are other issues of concern for Durham UCU members, as there are for our staff more generally, in addition to pay and pensions.

"Addressing these issues is a key priority for us.

"We currently have a group working to improve arrangements for how we engage casual workers and another looking at how we can reduce our gender pay gap.

"We have already made progress on these issues and continue to work with our local trade unions on important matters such as these.”

Union members went on strike in February and March 2018 over changes to pensions.

Some of those on strike in Durham joined staff from Newcastle University for a strike rally.