Universities could see national strike action this autumn over job cuts, a top official at the sector’s leading union has warned.

However, the employer body for universities has questioned the legality of a nationwide strike, in comments that underline the growing tendency for employers to use the law to prevent industrial action.

Michael MacNeil, head of higher education at the University and College Union , told the FT: “Our conference has asked me to go away and draw up a timetable for industrial action, which, if necessary, would take place early in the new academic year.” Industrial action can include measures short of a strike. Mr MacNeil said he would “not rule out strike action”.

But Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, told the FT she had “concerns . . . both about the legality and legitimacy” of nationwide action.

The UCU is angry at a slew of planned job cuts by individual universities, prompted by reductions in government funding.

Action has taken place at institutions such as King’s College London and the University of the Arts London. Mr MacNeil said UCU members were “moving towards industrial action” at Glasgow university and London university’s Institute of Education.

The UCU has called on Ucea, which represents universities as employers, to collaborate with unions on job security. Mr MacNeil would like this to include a commitment to no compulsory redundancies. At the very least, he would like it to pledge to include the unions much earlier in discussions on funding cuts.

Mr MacNeil said precedents existed. The Association of Colleges, which represents sixth form institutions and further education providers, has developed a joint agreement with unions on guidance to college members for avoiding and handling redundancies.

The key issue is whether a national strike over job security would be a “trade dispute” between strikers and their employers. If so, it would be within the law. A national strike by UCU members over pay in 2006 was deemed legal, because members were striking over a national pay offer that affected them all. Moreover, there is no argument that members at an individual university can strike over job cuts at that university.

Some experts questioned the legitimacy of a national strike over jobs, saying members at universities not facing redundancies could not take action over job cuts at other universities, because they would not be directly affected.

Mr MacNeil said that, in legal terms, a national strike over job security would be a “bona fide trade dispute”. Some experts agree, since it concerns a potential national deal that would affect everyone.

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