Should We Support Our Striking Lecturers?

Abigail Cadman Kerr

The University and College Union (UCU) has announced further strikes will take place in universities across the country on 24th, 25th, and 30th of November. Abigail Cadman Kerr speaks to a striking lecturer and investigates the reasons for these strikes. 

Overwhelming support for strikes was found in the union, representing 120,000 academics and administrators across the country. Two ballots were held, over pay and working conditions, and cuts to pensions. The pay and working conditions ballots received a yes vote for strike action of 81.1%, and in the pension ballot the result was even higher, with 84.9% voting to strike. This means that over 70,000 university staff at 150 universities will be striking, possibly affecting 2.5 million students. The union are also threatening escalating strike action in the new year, ‘alongside a marking and assessment boycott’ if employers don’t ‘act fast and make improved offers.’ 

7 in 10 university staff in the UK ‘would be reluctant to seek support for mental health problems for fear that it would harm their career’

Staff are striking over a number of issues. UCU found that since 2009, pay in further education has fallen behind inflation by 35%. As well as this, UCU are fighting to close the gender, ethnicity, and disability pay gap – there is a 15% pay gap between men and women, 17% between Black and white staff, and a 9% disability pay gap in the sector. 

The UCU are also campaigning for more support in the sector. Worryingly, a 2019 study also found that 7 in 10 university staff in the UK ‘would be reluctant to seek support for mental health problems for fear that it would harm their career’, with 71% of respondents saying that psychological health was not a priority for their university. 

Staff have rejected a 3% pay rise offered to them this year, instead asking for a pay increase 2% above the rate of inflation, and have said that this 3% pay rise would actually be a devastating pay cut in real terms. Regarding the pension dispute, UCU have demanded that employers revoke the average 30-35% cut to staff’s pensions and restore the benefits. 

‘It is outrageous that universities are hoarding millions of pounds in unpaid wages’

I spoke to Dr Anna Meier, an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, about her reasons for striking. She said: 

“For me, the fact that 1/3 of teaching staff in UK higher education are on casualised contracts is an appalling choice by university vice chancellors. One third of university instructors are hired for six or 12 months at a time, on poverty wages, and then must apply for new jobs. If they’re lucky, they’ll have to uproot their lives to move across the country to a new university for six more months of under-paid work. If they’re lucky!”

“They can’t buy homes; they can’t settle down; they can’t feel safe. And they can’t get to know their students and really work with them over a sustained period of time. I am on a permanent contract and so am secure by comparison, so it’s my responsibility as a member of the higher education community to use my relative power to stand up for my casualised colleagues. That’s what solidarity means.” 

An investigation by The Tab found that Russell Group universities saved almost £11 million in withheld pay during the 2021-22 academic year. UCU boss Jo Grady responded by saying ‘It is outrageous that universities are hoarding millions of pounds in unpaid wages off the back of recent industrial action that vice-chancellors pushed staff into.’ The UCU also cited the record income of the UK’s universities sector in the 2021-22 academic year, reaching £41.1 billion, arguing that universities can more than afford to meet staff demands. 

“University vice-chancellors can could stop that pain at any point by meeting UCU at the negotiating table”

Some believe that strikes aren’t working to produce change, and instead are punishing the very people UCU are seeking the support of, namely students. I asked Dr Anna Meier for her perspective on this: 

“I can understand this argument. Even after multiple strikes, university VCs have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to sacrifice students’ well-being… The bottom line is that staff have one thing university VCs value: our labour. Our ability to withdraw that by striking is our biggest point of leverage. This can hurt students, but at the end of the day, university VCs could stop that pain at any point by meeting UCU at the negotiating table. They have repeatedly chosen not to. Instead, they have chosen to keep hurting students by exploiting staff, such that learning conditions continue to deteriorate, even, and especially, when we are not on strike.” 

“I don’t want to dismiss this argument out of hand. There are conversations happening about more creative ways of doing this… Regardless, research and the experience of other sectors shows us that labour actions, whether strikes or something else, work better and faster when they are bigger. That’s one reason why these strikes involve every single university in the UK. It’s also a reason we need student support. If we stand together, instead of letting university VCs divide us, we can win.” 

“University vice-chancellors have worked hard to divide staff and students”

Though these strikes will cause further disruption to studies, adding to the hectic few years university students have faced, it is important to realise that staff working conditions are also our learning conditions. The National Union of Students (NUS) vice president Chloe Field has announced NUS’s support for the strikes, saying: 

‘The struggles we face as students are inextricably linked to the reasons that staff are striking. High rents, astronomical international student fees, and cuts to maintenance support have happened for the same reasons that staff are suffering under huge workloads – the failed marketisation of the sector which has put profit above staff and student well-being.’ It is therefore important, as students, to demonstrate our support for our striking lecturers. 

Dr Anna Meier also said: “University vice-chancellors have worked hard to divide staff and students and present their interests as opposed. When we’re told that one group’s well-being depends on another’s exploitation, we should always ask questions.” 

“Under present working conditions […] we are asked to perform more and more labour for less and less money”

“In reality, staff and students are on the same side. We want to provide students with the best education possible. But we can’t do that under present working conditions where we are asked to perform more and more labour for less and less money. University vice chancellors have made it abundantly clear that they don’t care about the quality of students’ education and would rather hoard billions of pounds in surplus than spend it on students’ futures… VCs don’t seem to be willing to advocate for you. We are.” 

So, how can we, as students, support the strike? I asked Dr Meier: 

“It sounds like a small thing, but letting your lecturers know you support the strike really means the world to us and help galvanise us in the face of losing pay whilst you’re on strike. Solidarity doesn’t work in silence, so please let us know when you’re with us.” 

“On a larger scale, you can vote in the Students’ Union referendum on supporting the strike, write to Vice Chancellor Shearer West urging her to negotiate with staff, and join us on the picket lines at the entrances to University Park and Jubilee campuses, the mornings of 24 and 25 November.” 

Abigail Cadman Kerr

Featured image courtesy of ThisIsEngineering via Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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