With students' final exams already underway, the University and College Union (UCU) has defended its members staging a two-day strike as part of a pay and conditions row.
University lecturers will 'work to contract' today (Wednesday) and tomorrow to protest the 1.1 per cent pay rise offered by the Universities and Colleges Employer Association (UCEA), which they argue is unsatisfactory.
For 48 hours they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work, mark exams, or undertake voluntary duties such as covering for absent colleagues.
Michael MacNeil, head of bargaining and negotiations at the UCU, told Paul Ross that despite budget reserves in the sector of £21 billion, the union's members have suffered a real-terms pay cut of 14.5% since 2009, "while the university bosses awarded themselves increases double that rate".
"It's really unfortunate it's come to this," he said of the potential impact on students who are currently sitting final exams. "We've explained to the students the reasons why we had to take this step and why there will be disruption during the examination process, but we have to get the attention of the vice-chancellors.
"They're raking in money and using it to create new buildings and invest in new capital rather than investing in the staff.
"It's just not fair, and in the end it is our members that deliver the educational experience to students."
MacNeil argued that the heavy annual influx of students meant the UCEA were in a strong position to make an improved offer.
"There are more students going into university," he said. "[But] our members are expected to do more with less. Last year the universities made a £1.85bn surplus.
"The university system can afford to make a decent offer and give a proper pay rise to our members."
Unions representing university support staff are also balloting members on possible strike action, while the UCU has announced that "if no agreement is reached in the coming weeks, members have agreed to further strike action which could affect open days, graduation ceremonies and the clearing process".
The UCU is also concerned about the widespread use of casual contracts in the industry.
"Many students and parents are probably unaware that about half of the teaching staff are paid on casualised contracts," MacNeil said.
"It's an absolute disgrace that some of our seats of learning have employment practice more akin to Sports Direct."