LECTURERS and support staff at Ulster and Queen's universities have begun the first of 18 days of "unprecedented" strike action.
Picket lines were formed at the two universities as part of a UK-wide dispute over pay, working conditions and pensions with walkouts at around 150 universities during February and March.
The action by around 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the UK is being taken by University and College Union (UCU) members.
The union says that since 2009 staff pay has been cut in real terms by more than 25 per cent, while the pensions of university workers have been slashed this year by an average of 35 per cent.
UCU said that university bosses last week offered staff a five per cent pay award, but the union said the offer is "not enough".
Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: "University vice-chancellors have been given multiple opportunities to use the sector's vast wealth to resolve these disputes.
"Instead, they have forced staff back to the picket line and brought disruption to students.
"Staff aren't asking for much.
"They want a decent pay rise, secure employment and for devastating pension cuts to be reversed. These demands are reasonable and deliverable by a sector which has over £40bn in reserves.
"Students back their staff taking action because they see day in day out the way that it treats those who do the work inside our universities.
"There are 17 further days of strike action planned, but it can be avoided. For that, we need university bosses to get serious and make much improved offers. If they don't any disruption that takes place is entirely their responsibility."
UCU members recently took strike action for three days in November.
Further walkouts are set to take place on February 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 27 and 28 as well as March 1, 2, 16, 17, 20, 21 and 22.
Universities UK has called the action "disappointing", while the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) said they had made the union a "full and final pay offer of between eight per cent and five per cent".
"This offer prioritises the disproportionate effect of high inflation falling on the lower paid but still with a minimum of five per cent for all other members of staff," the UCEA said.
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll joined striking university workers outside St Mary's University College.
"Until the university employers make significant industrial improvements to the working conditions of our vital education staff, we must continue to support the joint action between the UCU and Unite," he said.
"In the torrential rain the workers are ready to fight for their working conditions, we must show them our full solidarity."