Thousands of students have joined striking university staff on picket lines across the country, the University and College Union (UCU) has said.
Universities across the UK have been hit by walkouts, with lectures and seminars cancelled, as 70,000 staff have begun an unprecedented period of strike action over pay, working conditions and pensions.
The UCU expects 2.5 million students to be affected by 18 days of strikes during February and March.
On Wednesday, the first day of strike action across 150 universities, Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “University staff have turned out in massive numbers on picket lines today.
“Their anger over falling pay, insecure employment and pension cuts is impossible to ignore.”
She added: “We have been overwhelmed by the support of thousands of students who have joined us on picket lines across the country.
“They recognise that vice chancellors are wrecking the sector and are determined to stand with us and fix it.”
The union is calling on university leaders to urgently resolve the disputes to avoid further disruption.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), representing 144 employers, said it has made a “full and final pay offer” of between 8% and 5%.
This offer has been described as the highest uplift in nearly 20 years.
Dr Grady said: “Vice chancellors need to wake up, come out of hiding and use the sector’s vast wealth to resolve these disputes.
“There are a further 17 days of strike action on the horizon, but they do not need to happen if those in charge of the sector make staff fair, well-rounded offers.”
The UCEA said feedback from universities on Wednesday suggests there have been “low and isolated” levels of disruption to students’ lectures.
Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s chief executive said: “Despite the initial feedback from HE institutions suggesting low and isolated impact on students, it is saddening if even a single student is impacted, especially when UCEA made an unprecedented full and final pay offer of between 8% and 5% more than three months in advance of the usual timetable.
“Employers hope that low and isolated IA feedback provides an indication of staff reaction to the final pay offer.
“Attempts at strike action will do nothing to support students, staff or the many HE institutions struggling to deliver such a financially challenging pay offer this early.
“HE institutions are particularly disappointed that UCU is targeting students who have endured so many recent disruptions.”
At a UCU picket line on the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus, an associate professor at the university, who wished to remain anonymous, said her “heart sank” when she told her students about the weeks of strike action, which could see some lose up to 40% of teaching hours in some modules.
But she said she had to stand her ground over the pensions issue, which first caused the UCU to strike in 2018.
She said: “I was working with colleagues who were in tears of frustration and anxiety about the fact their pensions were going to be so eroded, and that what they had planned for all their working life was not going to happen.
“The perception of our job is that it is quite a privileged job, but we work such ridiculous hours and the levels of stress go up and up and up. In my time in this field, every year you get more work.”