Do you think your working conditions are adequate? “No! I’m sending this email at 23:59

In February 2018, Jason Murugesu and Peter Fitzsimons wrote in The Cheese Grater ,“a battle is raging at UCL, one that will define the very nature of the university for the decades to come.” Two and a half years later, this statement resonates deeply with the current tense climate at UCL. As the university finds itself in a state of constant transition, seen most clearly in the recent progression towards blended learning, there remains an ever-present, static issue: the pension, pay and working conditions of its teaching staff. Since 2018, three bouts of university staff strike action have come and gone, with a fourth one on the horizon. UCL-UCU ballots from October 2021, that had a turnout of 50.1%, have revealed that 73.7% voted for strike action and 87.4% for action short of strike. With little to no change in university policies, but financial and educational losses worth thousands of pounds incurred by students and staff, the question remains: why hasn’t UCL done more to prevent another strike? 

 

Issues at stake

The ongoing disputes centre around four focal issues: pension fund cuts, inadequate working conditions, university staff pay cuts, and a persisting wage gap. In August 2021, employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to push ahead with a proposal to cut thousands of pounds from university staff retirement benefits. In a recent interview with The Cheese Grater, Sean Wallis, president of UCL’s University & College Union (UCU) branch, described this act as an ‘attack on the next generation of academics.’ If ‘nothing changes’, he contends, then as of March next year, ‘the pension scheme that they are enrolled in will be worth 30-40% less.’ Moreover, pay for university staff across the country fell by 20% between 2009 and 2019. According to Wallis, this paired with the pension cuts constitutes a battle for a sustainable future of higher education: ‘if we want to keep people in university research and teaching, who are not worried about where their next paycheck is going to come from, then we have to have decent salaries, paychecks and pension schemes. This isn’t about us now, it is about having a sector that attracts young people.’

Although the decision to cut retirement benefits is a recent one, there remain a number of seemingly perpetual problems. A professor from SSEES believes that UCL is yet to take ‘meaningful action’ towards the ‘racism, sexism, classism and homophobia pervasive in the institution’. Sean Wallis noted that a breakdown of UCL’s annual Gender and Ethnicity Pay Report points to the existence of a series of ‘glass ceilings’ within the institution – ‘the data can, on a grade by grade basis, look like women have got better salaries on support roles than men. But if you look at what is happening structurally, the problem is that many women who have been here a long time are stuck in lower-graded roles without being promoted.’ The 2021 Pay Report explains that on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest pay grade) ‘the proportion of female staff reduces above grade 5, and this is the predominant reason for the mean and median gap [in pay].’ Similarly, the mean ethnicity wage gap has remained stuck between 13.1-13.5% for the last four years despite various BAME empowerment initiatives launched by UCL. Wallis believes ‘UCL can do more’ to fix these issues, the first step being improving job security and promotion prospects across all grades. 

Indeed, A national 2020 report by the UCU revealed that 6500 university lecturers across the UK were employed on zero-hour contracts, while 68,845 did not have secure contracts. Zero-hour contracts are casual contracts that do not have a minimum number of hours and can be terminated at any time; they have been reported to worsen mental health and disproportionately target BAME groups. For academic staff, unstable contracts like these come with the threat of receiving no holiday pay, or worse, losing their jobs at the end of the academic year. 

Closely connected to the issue of casualisation is the bulking of workloads, which is a result of an overall exponential increase in the intake of students at UCL over the last 10 years, altogether contributing to the inadequate working conditions described by staff. Consequently, many professors experience a lack of deliberate engagement with their students. Dr Allen Abramson, from the department of Anthropology, explains why: 

“Workloads are growing, administrative duties are multiplying and there is less time to research. What this amounts to is an inability by staff to fully discharge all of their duties, to be as creative and imaginative as they ought to be, and to blend research into teaching in ways that really enliven students’ degrees.” 

As a result of these heightened workloads, students find themselves directly disserviced, often receiving lower quality of education due to the ‘rushing’ of tasks. Sean Wallis describes it best: ‘what happens is that you have more marking for more students, but you don’t necessarily get an increase in your hours as a result to do that, which inevitably puts a lot more pressure on staff in terms of rushing.’ 

 

What’s happened so far? 

‘We have actually worked quite well with UCL locally after the last dispute’, says Wallis. Prior to the industrial action, UCL postgraduate teaching assistants (PGTAs) used to be on casual contracts, and there still remains a pressure to reintroduce certain amounts of casualisation around PGTAs. ‘To be fair to UCL, they have worked with us, and we have got a postgraduate code of practice. But we want to make sure that that sticks and that it’s workable’, Wallis adds. In addition to an agreement surrounding casual contracts, the strikes also resulted in UCL increasing the average staff pay by around 3.3%. These are victories that are borne out of ‘collective action’, as Wallis describes it, but issues remain, and staff are put in a position where their only ‘weapon is to withdraw [their] labour, to stop what [they] are doing’. 

 

How have students been affected? 

In this fight between the university management and the staff, students suffered significant losses – in 2018 alone, more than a million students were impacted across the UK. The number increased significantly after the 2019 and 2020 strike action. However, the intersection of staff satisfaction and quality of education received by students is often overlooked. A professor from the Department of Education, Practice and Society, reminded us that “students are losing out in the current system, not just because they pay exorbitant fees – especially if they are overseas students – and are saddled with debt, but because nobody benefits from being taught by staff who are exhausted, overworked, and anxious about their job security.” 

On one hand, while picketing restricted access to UCL buildings, delivery of teaching and cutting-edge research, it also represented staff solidarity in seeking an equitable present and a secure future. However, the experience of strikes was far from glorious. Dr Michal Murawski from SSEES reflected on some of the difficulties faced during picketing, “people get stressed and ill standing out on picket lines, pay is docked, students get upset, conflict with colleagues arise.” 

By the same token, professors were disheartened to watch their students suffer. Dr Stuart Tannock, of the UCL Institute Of Education, noted, “I love teaching and working with students at UCL, and I am deeply frustrated that the modules that I have created and run have so often had to be disrupted by collective strike action. However, I will vote again to strike, and I will do daily picket line duty again this year if this is needed.” Furthermore, other arrangements were made to replicate the intellectual atmosphere in university classrooms — Dr Murawski highlighted the organisation of “a wealth of successful teach-outs, sing-outs and other events on the picket line” — that benefited students and staff alike. 

“It has been fantastic to see the level of student support for past strikes – but this support cannot be taken for granted,” advises Dr Ben Noble, SSEES, in response to UCL’s scant academic and financial compensation. When asked about UCL’s compensation for the contact hours lost, Steven (pseudonym), a 2021 alum, shared that instead of providing catch-up lectures or seminars, UCL simply removed the missed content from the assessments. However, a PPE student contended that ‘if UCL’s attempt to compensate for lost contact hours was by asking teaching staff to do the work they decided not to do during the strikes, I would not be comfortable with that’.  

As a recompense, UCL also set up a Learning Opportunities Fund in January 2020, payable up to £250, to enable students to purchase extra resources for self-teaching. This fund was financed by the salaries withheld from staff for every day of strike action. Several students (who were interviewed but wish to remain anonymous) argued that the monetary amount was not enough, considering that approximately, on average, 8800 teaching hours were lost during each bout of strike action.

Similarly, tuition refunds were limited to a few hundred pounds. Hundreds of students applied and were granted a portion of their fee back. However, because UCL did not allow anonymous applications, numerous students felt discouraged to apply in fear of their coursework grading being negatively impacted. Additionally, the process seemed unclear and convoluted to many. Steven recounted his experience: “there are so many loop holes and lines of bureaucracy you have to get through to even register a [refund] complaint that it was just not worth it given the amount of work I had to do teaching myself the things that I missed because of the strike.” 

After two years of strike action, the pandemic rolled around. Another year of disrupted learning made university students, especially international students, feel cheated by the steep tuition. Circumstances beyond their control have dominated their time at university, a transient experience for most students. With three years of lost contact hours came a debilitating knowledge gap and crippling student debt. 

 

Will there be more strikes?

“We do not like to do it, we do not want to do it; we do however have to be able to afford to do the jobs that we love,” says a professor from UCL School of Management. As UCU ballots have revealed, it is likely that UCL will not be alone in calling for strikes — the University of Liverpool already undertook strike action in August 2021. Evidently, staff at UCL do not seem convinced by the minor changes made by the university since the first strike in 2018. As the threat of another strike looms, it is difficult to maintain an optimistic outlook regarding the students. In fact, the UCL Students’ Union has opposed further strike action, claiming that “at this time, strikes will only serve to damage students more”. Yet, while students may get the short end of the stick in the immediate present, it seems that everyone will be better off in the long run.

 

Emilija Deveikyte and Rusheen Bansal

Additional reporting by Loris Moraiti and Ludovica Ardente

This article appeared in CG Issue 79