Up to 43,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) at 60 UK universities walked out, disrupting lectures for over a million students in the run up to the Christmas break.
The UCU said staff had reached “breaking point” over a number of issues, including workloads, real-terms cuts in pay, a 15 per cent gender pay gap and changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which the union says will leave members paying in more and receiving less in retirement.
Picket lines were mounted at campuses across the country, protests were due to be held and other forms of industrial action launched, including not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.
Institutions in the region affected by the strikes include the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and York, as well as Sheffield Hallam.
Those on strike included lecturers, student support services staff, admissions tutors, librarians, technicians and administrators.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The employers seem to want to test the mettle of staff and see if they will turn up on picket lines. It is really unfortunate they have decided to do that because they are misjudging their staff.
"More and more people are joining the union and there is a real feeling of anger. There could be a second wave of strikes if we don’t get a long term, sustainable offer and universities refuse to take our concerns seriously.”
The union estimated that the pension changes could leave lecturers around £240,000 worse off in retirement over their career, and up to £730,000 for professors.
A Leeds-based union representative said that strikers were “fighting for the heart and soul of our sector”.
Vicky Blake, UK vice-president (higher education) at UCU, said the picket line outside the University of Leeds yesterday was the biggest she had seen - and that strikers had support from students who turned out.
“It nearly made me cry,” he said.
She described all the Yorkshire pickets as "massive", having checked in with union colleagues.
Carol Costello, spokesman for the employers’ side, said: “The action and claims of the UCU that employers are forcing them into this cannot go unchallenged.”
The union was insisting that employers should pay the full cost of an increase in pension contributions and had not been prepared to compromise, she said.
“It has been a complete red line for them and has made negotiating impossible.
“It suggests a lack of willingness to recognise the reality of the situation. Employers are prepared to invest in our people, but unaffordable sums of money would have to be diverted from other budgets unless individual members make a fair contribution.”
University leaders have written to the union outlining their commitment to deliver long-term reform of the USS.
The strikes take place over five days this week, yesterday included, and again for three days from December 2.