On the 24th, 25th and 30th of November, universities saw the biggest strike turnout in higher education, estimating over 70 000 academic staff taking action and 2.5 million students being affected across the UK. If you’re a returning student at UCL, you are probably quite familiar with the strikes that occurred on campus, but if you’re a fresher, welcome to your first strike season.
For many, these strikes might seem to be part of the ‘same old story’ of people unhappy with working conditions and pay – cost of living crisis, right? However, as Geography lecturer Dr Tom Western expressed: “It’s not the cost of living crisis but the cost of greed crisis’, fuelled by the marketisation of higher education in the UK.
University and College Union (UCU) members have been periodically striking across the UK since 2011 with little to no concessions from universities themselves. Over the years, we have seen an increase in the number of organised strikes, ranging from all parts of universities’ workforces, such as academic staff, security staff and cleaning staff. However, with their neglect and lack of desire to meet the strikers half way, universities are pushing staff to the breaking point.
What are the strikes about?
Before delving further into the complexities of striking dynamics, let us give you a breakdown, if you haven’t heard it all before. Members of the UCU, the Trade Union body that represents academic staff, are striking due to two main disputes, The Four fights (Casualisation, Inequalities, Workload, Pay) and Pensions.
A major issue in universities across the country is the fact that academic staff are put on insecure contracts with casualisation, where there are no set working hours and employees can be called in as and when required. We spoke to UCL-UCU representative Sean Wallis, and as he explained, academics get hired with no job security and are at risk of being paid on an intermittent basis, 6,500 academic staff are also on zero hour contracts. The national UCU has denounced casualisation in academia as ‘racist and sexist’. UCL’s face of progressivism, seems deceiving as it continues to have a 13.8% gender wage gap and a 13.7% ethnic wage gap. On top of that, 29% of academic staff average over 55 hour working weeks and staff on any type of contract, whether it’s full time, fixed or part time, are doing unpaid work on a consistent basis. In addition, since 2009, in real terms, staff salaries have fallen by 20% and The University and Colleges Employers Association ‘compensated’ the 14.2% retail price inflation with a 3% pay rise.
If pay stagnation is not reason enough, academic staff also have to worry about their future with the disputes surrounding pensions. In February this year, pension cuts proposed by the Universities UK organisation were passed, meaning USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) members will experience a 35% decrease in their pensions and majority staff under the age of 40 are each losing an estimate of £100/200 000. These cuts were imposed as a result of the 2020 stock collapse and pandemic caused deficit in pension schemes. However this ‘deficit’ is now conveniently in a £1.8bn surplus.
Therefore, academic staff under the UCU ask for two things:
- ‘that our pension benefits be restored to the position before the cuts were imposed in April 2022’
- ‘that a prudent and evidence-based valuation of the scheme is conducted’
Yet there is still no sign of these issues being resolved or even negotiated.
What do the strikers have to say?
In an attempt to learn more about how people really feel about the strikes, the disputes and the general shift in the academic environment, we interviewed both students and staff across multiple picket lines on Thursday, Friday and Wednesday.
Fabien Cante, a lecturer in the Geography department who has faced casualisation with insecure contracts himself expressed ‘I am striking most generally because I am appalled by the direction that UK universities are taking as places of work and learning. Successive policies that have pushed universities to run as businesses – competing for student fees and research grants, trying to reduce staff costs to invest in ‘strategic’ management and real estate… – have affected teachers and students for the worst, and changed the very nature of a university education’.
With the increasing dominance of corporate mentality in higher education, it is the hope that striking can stop the trend of marketisation, by ‘demanding that universities reform as more sustainable and equal workplaces’, he explained.
Students at the picket, including a 3nd year Politics and IR student, expressed their disbelief that people ‘keep having to fight for changes that seem so obvious’ and was happy with the strong turnout in support of the strikes in the SU vote.
However, despite this being the largest turnout in SU voting history, we are yet to see management cooperate. As Economic Geography lecturer Dr Amy Horton phrased, ‘they are choosing to prioritise other things and we need to remember people, staff and students are at the heart of the university’. It seems as though any student action, including standing in solidarity with the strike, not crossing the picket, or even being on strike themselves, is not making an impact.
Instead, universities’ lack of cooperation is pushing younger academics to not even enter their desired field. A student revealed to us the discouragement she felt, in fact, causing her to pass on a PHD opportunity to avoid the ‘precarious conditions’ higher education has managed to cultivate.
So what about the students?
Students do have the luxury of absenteeism when it comes to these strikes: Some of us may have been lucky enough to miss out on only a few hours of contact time. This is hardly debilitating, perhaps to some it felt more like a long weekend than a call to action.
Though this is said in jest, union members and staff are crying out for students to sit up and take an interest. It doesn’t always seem like a lot, but for a lecturer to take time out of their planned curriculum to talk about the strikes at the end of a lecture, or to forward resources is an important step towards educating students on the reasons behind strikes and hopefully encourage more people to show up to the pickets. Yet still the Cheese Grater overhears total failures of communication, or listening:
A student expressed: ‘I don’t understand. Like they’re literally stood outside the building? What’s stopping them from just going in, and teaching? It must be better than standing in the cold’.
There are factors holding back support: many staff here short term (as many language staff are, for example) feel that they are not ‘part of the institution’ enough for their voice to be welcome, which mirrors the mindset of students, perhaps, who might see themselves as transient members of the university rather than people who shape it.
Increased election turnouts can be explained by factors other than sympathy: relatively higher engagement with staff compared to the COVID years, support in name (sure, I’ll tick the box!) but not in effect as a result of general political discontent. The question as we hunted potential interviewees on the picket lines was clear: where are the students?
Without a more vocal expression of solidarity from the students, it is difficult to see how the strikes will apply anymore pressure to either the paybody or UCL. Alternative striking methods, such as striking for longer periods of time may prompt students to empathise and take action but could also trigger a backlash. Protracted strikes also mean staff lose out on a significant amount of their salary in the midst of a cost of living crisis. After more than a decade of on and off strikes it is clear that this approach is not attaining their goals.