Interview With Agnes Flues, Head Of The Strike At The University Of Nottingham

Maia Mason

Amidst the continuing strikes from UCU members, Maia Mason interviewed Agnes Flues, President of the UoN UCU branch committee, to learn more about the reasons for the strikes and their impact upon staff, as well as the importance of solidarity from students.

Q1: So, for those who don’t know, what are the reasons for the strike?

So, we are involved in two industrial disputes. Although they are separate disputes they are interlinked. One concerns the pension fund, and the other is called the Four Fights. This is looking at pay, pay equality, and casualization. Both disputes have been going on for a number of years, but action has been disrupted by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have now re-balloted and continued to strike over both disputes as there has been no adequate progress or resolution. On the pensions dispute (USS) there are over forty universities that are striking across the country, on the Four Fights there are 68.

Members would lose between 35% and 45% of their pension benefits when they retire

The first round of strikes that I have been involved with started in 2018 over pensions, when there was a move to reform the scheme from a ‘defined benefit’ system to a ‘defined contribution’ system. ‘Defined benefit’ means that you know exactly what you are getting out of your pension once you retire. ‘Defined contribution’ means you know what you are paying in, but what you get out of it might vary depending on how the stock markets perform. We managed to avoid that reform.

However, what happens is that the pension fund gets valuated every three years, so there was a new valuation of the scheme and of the financial health of the scheme done in March 2020, which was at the beginning of the pandemic, when the stock markets were crashing and the economy was in turmoil, and the outlook for global financial markets was pretty bleak. The valuation found that there would not be enough money in the scheme to pay the current amount of members once they retire, despite what they had been promised. It was decided that reform needed to be done. UUK (Universities UK) put forward proposals to reform the pension scheme, which meant that members would lose between 35% and 45% of their pension benefits when they retire, which obviously for us is unacceptable. The counterproposal put forward was that there would be an increase in contributions for a year, with a view to bridge the one-year gap that there was, and then doing a new valuation of the scheme once again. This proposal was rejected, and this is why the dispute is not resolved.

At the University of Nottingham, the mean gender pay gap is around 20%. The mean BAME pay gap is around 12%

The Four Fights is looking at systemic issues in the higher education sector as a whole. We are looking at pay- UK university staff’s pay has decreased, in real terms, by 20% since 2009. And, so, we are asking for a £2500 pay increase on all salary scale points across the board to make up for that. Pay inequality is another important aspect of the dispute, so, again, at the University of Nottingham, the mean gender pay gap is around 20%. The mean BAME pay gap is around 12%. The disability pay gap is not being recorded by the university. The ask is for meaningful negotiations to take place at a national level.

Casualization is the third of the Four Fights- about a third of higher education staff are employed on fixed-term contracts or short-term contracts, which means, as with the issue of pensions, it is hard to life-plan. For example, it is a common practice across the sector that people are employed from September to May/June, to cover the marking period, and then they are out of work in July and August, and then they are rehired in September again. You are losing the continuity of service as your employment is interrupted. With these fixed term contracts, the first half of the job is spent getting to know the ropes and learning what you are doing, and the second half is spent worrying about where your next job is going to be. This type of employment means you cannot plan, you cannot get a mortgage- it is precarious.

It is a last resort action from the unions

The last aspect is around workloads. Even before the pandemic it was very common for higher education staff to be working above and beyond their workload allocations- it is not uncommon that people are working at 120% of their time commitment. This is not sustainable long-term and creates work related stress and impacts mental health and wellbeing. All these issues are interlinked and interconnected, which is why while there are two separate disputes, there is not one that is more important than the other.

Q2: Why do you think it is important for both staff and students to be getting involved?

Industrial action effects both staff and students alike. It is not something that any staff do lightly, it is a very difficult decision to make. It is a last resort action from the unions. From our point of view, we don’t like going on strike. We don’t get paid while going on strike which many people may not be aware of. It is physically and emotionally quite draining due to the fact that it is a situation of conflict. I think it is important for students to understand the motivations for the strike, i.e., why we feel we have to take that step. At the same time, we do not like impacting students, but have no other choice because it is the last tool in the box if you like.

We are fighting for a higher education environment in which we can perform and to give students the best experience that we can and that they deserve. Our motto is ‘our working conditions are your learning conditions’, so if you have a lecturer that has the time to prepare adequately for your lecture, that has the time to engage, that has the time to give feedback, and is not constantly worried about the next thing that they have to do, this will ultimately give students a better experience.

Essentially, you are getting a worse experience for more money

This is for staff’s working conditions, but also for the health of the higher education system. If we win this, it will also be a good outcome for the students in terms of giving us the opportunity to serve you the best we can. And again, there is a broader trend of marketisation of education that comes into the picture here as well. There is the push on the side of staff of delivering ever more, bringing in more research grants, fulfilling KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and reaching ever higher standards. At the same time class sizes are increasing- colleagues have said that 15 years ago seminar sizes would have been around 10-15 people, now we are looking at a standard of 25. Student fees have also increased over this time, so, essentially, you are getting a worse experience for more money.

Q3: Following on from your comment about not getting paid over the strike, I have seen that striking members of staff have lost a third of their pay during the last month [February]. I was wondering what sort of toll this decision to strike has taken in other spheres of your life?

The union provides support for its members- it is part of the membership subscription fee. Obviously not all of the subscription fee goes to the strike fund, however this is how strikes are supported. There are also local hardship funds for those who suffer more due to strike action. However, it is a set fee so it will not cover all of your lost salary during this time.

The most important part is that you feel you are part of a collective endeavour

This is generally a decision made with one’s family and it is very dependent on what your circumstances are. Many academics are also from double-academic households, for example where both parents are lecturers, and both take part in strike action. This has quite a substantial impact. For those who are in the earlier stages of their career, many are afraid they will be viewed negatively when it comes to progressing in their career. All of those are counterweighted by the sense of being in a community and being part of a collective struggle. As I mentioned, there are good financial support mechanisms for members, as well as a well-established network of reps in each school so there is good support for each other. I think the most important part is that you feel you are part of a collective endeavor, rather than feeling isolated or that you are struggling on your own.

Q4: I have heard concerns from non-striking members of staff and effected students about the timing of the strike, due to the fact that this is the first time many students have experienced normal teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What would be your response to these concerns?

Those are completely legitimate concerns. We all know that the last 18-24 months have been particularly difficult. There has already been a lot of disruption to students’ learning experience. There have been strikes before, we came out of strike action in 2020, close to the beginning of the pandemic. It is all back-to-back, and we are conscious that there are students who have every year of their education disrupted by strike action. Again, as I said, staff care about their students, and it is not a position we want to be in. However, we feel we have no other choice, because of the decisions the university vice-chancellors have taken.

So, to the students who, quite correctly, feel like they have missed out on their university experience and have been negatively affected by the strikes… by all means complain to university management

On the Four Fights, we had reached a stage before the pandemic where it looked like we were on the brink of a negotiated solution. However, this has now been completely rescinded, so, at the moment, the employers are not even talking to us on those issues. We literally feel like we have no other choice. So, to the students who, quite correctly, feel like they have missed out on their university experience and have been negatively affected by the strikes… by all means complain to university management.

Q5: So, to wrap it up, do you have any final comments you would like to share?

Yeah, I mean I don’t teach personally but many of my colleagues that do have been speaking to their students in classes before the strikes, telling them why we are doing this. We have a very good relationship with the Student Union, we have joint sessions with students around the strike, and do things like this interview as well. We are open to explaining why we are doing this, and we want students to understand. We have found that whenever we speak to students about our motivations, they appreciate why we are doing this, and that it is not what we want to do, it is what we have to do.

The solidarity of students (whether they are joining us on the picket line, or online, or in emails of solidarity) it is really heartening to us and shows there is a mutual understanding of our shared experienced of higher education. We are eternally grateful for it, and it is an open conversation we want to keep going.

For more information about the strikes please visit the University’s FAQ page: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/home/alerts/industrial-action.aspx

Advice on the complaints procedure can be found below:


Maia Mason

Featured image courtesy of Claudio Schwarz via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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