The Cheese Grater in conversation with Josh Hollands

The Cheese Grater Magazine has spoken with Josh Hollands, a UCL Teaching fellow in US History who is also a member of the UCU Executive Committee regarding the recent UCU strikes. Hollands relayed the four fights of the UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) campaign, which are casualisation, workload, pay and inequality, for those who work very long hours on insecure contracts; but it is also over the huge inequalities in terms of pay and conditions across UCL.

The Intellectual Precariat:

According to Hollands, “What we’re fighting for is a sustainable future in higher education that is more equitable, that says to people like myself at the very start of their careers that you have a place here and we’re going to put your pay and your conditions and students concerns at the heart of our education system, which is something that hasn’t happened yet.”

Only a third of academic staff are on fixed term contracts while the majority are forced to move from one temporary contract to another. The drive behind strike action is clearly a response to a much more systemic problem: the corporatisation of higher education.

The average academics pay has fallen 20% in real terms since 2009, as investment priorities have been diverted elsewhere. New billion-pound buildings are seen to attract students instead of the quality of teaching. On top of this, UCL’s expansion (UCL East) will see thousands more students enrolled.

This move, which appears to be motivated by financial gain, will see staff bear the brunt of increasingly unreasonable workload demands. Hollands stated that UCL “can’t afford to pay decent pensions, can’t afford to pay for decent pay and to address the gender pay gap, the disability pay gap, the racial pay gap.”

As a teaching fellow himself, Hollands also understands first-hand the unfairness of teaching fellow contracts at UCL. “People will remain on these [contracts] for years and years without any guarantee of permanent employment. PGTA issues, the fact that TAs [teaching assistants], the people that undergraduates see on a day to day basis, who do most of the teaching are paid say under £15 an hour.

Preparation time is not actually enough time for them to prepare so what they’re actually being paid is £5 or £7.50 an hour.” For the vast majority of staff this depreciation in the value of their work has made it simply untenable to be able to afford to live in London and teach at UCL.

In terms of USS pensions, the current dispute stems from changes introduced since 2011, which mean the average member stands to lose around £240,000 over their lifetime. Hollands stressed that those on strike do not take this action easily. Most will lose hundreds of pounds in pay. UCU are currently negotiating with two employer bodies: Universities U.K. (UUK) for the pensions part of the strike, and UCEA for the pay and conditions and inequality, workload casualisation.

Student support:

Hollands outlined his understanding, as well as those of his fellow striking lecturers, of the “huge sacrifice” on the part of the students who showed support and that “it’s unfortunate that they are put at the centre of this.” He went on to state that “student support is really important because universities do listen to students” and that letters to
Michael Arthur, the UCL Provost, asking him to negotiate  do help “as it is something he really will listen to.”

Hollands also stated it was unlikely that there would be further strike action during the academic year. According to Holland UCU “don’t want to be striking into the new year and especially not into exam time.” However, he disclosed that union members will be forced strike again, most likely in January, if no serious settlement offered.

As a result of the last strike, employers had set up a joint expert panel to look at pensions, but the recommendations were ignored, in turn angering a lot of staff, pushing them to come out on strike again this year.

Uniting with IWGB:

In reference to uniting with the cause of IWGB, Hollands stated it was an opportunity to raise some of these mutual concerns about how universities are funded and where that money is going.

“We have a different vision for the university than, I think, senior management do, and I think that’s a fairer university,” said Hollands.  Speaking for UCU he said “the heart of our concerns is education” and assured students that “we still want to be teaching.” Many departments have done teach-outs and been able to “continue having serious intellectual discussions on the picket lines” even though, as Hollands said, “we’re having to do it outside in the cold.”

He stressed that lecturers “understand the levels of student hardship going on because we are the ones who discuss these issues with students every day in terms of pastoral care.” He added that students “have a right to be angry as it is a disgrace that a university charges the amount of fees that they do.

UCU’s official position is to scrap tuition fees in order to have a “more equitable system of funding education, that doesn’t rely on students going into a massive amount of debt.” Although it has been suggested by Hollands that student support for the strikes was strong, The Cheese Grater has observed a more mixed student response.

As the average student in England will graduate with over £50,000 of debt, it increasingly harder to not view higher education as a financial investment. However, blaming lecturers for students’ financial loss or for jeopardising academic success ignores the bigger picture.

Darcy Bounsall and Alice Fraser

Additional reporting by Felicity Wareing


This appeared in CG 69