University Strikes Receive Backlash As Anti-Strike Bill Passes Commons

Lucy Popham

University strike action arranged by the UCU will hit 150 universities across the UK. In total, 70,000 UCU members will walk out on a record high eighteen day strike throughout February and March. Since 2009-2010, staff pay has declined in value by 25% relative to RPI, due to a series of below-inflation pay awards. This has compelled teaching staff across the country to partake in strike action to see an improvement in their working conditions. Lucy Popham reports.

Teaching staff are demanding an improvement on the university employers’ pay offer of 4-5% to avoid disruption. Members of the UCU are calling for not only an increase in pay but general working conditions and pension benefits. Time is running out for universities to make a serious offer to staff to avoid disruption.

The cost-of-living crisis and insecure contracts has compelled vast numbers of teaching staff to strike. Recent statistics suggest that an average lecturer can lose 35% of their guaranteed future retirement income and so the UCU are calling for a revocation of pensions cuts and a restoration of benefits to 2021 levels.

The Bill […] will increase the challenges workers face to win fair pay

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is a government attempt to reduce disruption and prohibit full strike action. If successful, the Bill will provide the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial strategy the power to make provisions for minimum service levels in key sectors including education. This will give employers the right to identify staff members that are required to work and issue a work notice seven days prior to their arranged strike day.

The bill cleared the Commons on Monday night as MPs voted 315 to 246. It was argued by some MPs that the Bill hits the correct balance of the right to strike and ensuring public safety in the duration of strike days. Others have claimed it is a badly written Bill attacking civil liberties and working-class people, allowing employers to sack workers in public service.

The bill will decrease the impact of strike action, consequently increasing the challenges workers face to win fair pay. Doctor Novitz, a Professor of Labour Law at the University of Bristol, fears the Bill’s effect on working conditions and industrial relations could prolong the dispute between the UCU and universities, she hopes a resolution will come soon, “People go into academia because they want to support students. Most of us just don’t really want to strike at all, but the quality of the staff’s working conditions also impacts the students.”

There are fears support might be eroded if lectures are cancelled once again

Staff who took strike action over similar issues in 2019-20 had widespread support from students. But after the disruption caused by the pandemic, with studies moved online and students stranded for months in their bedrooms, there are fears support might be eroded if lectures are cancelled once again.

The impact of strike action upon students is a controversial issue, with some students rallying support for their lecturers and others demanding legal action to receive tuition fee rebates. Those in support of the strikes argue that the point is disruption, and they are doing a great job of continuing their action. They also agree that the welfare of the teachers is equally as important as student welfare, improving staff conditions will consequently improve working conditions for students.

Those against the strike are calling for reimbursement on tuition. One student argued that he feels like a “political pawn” in a row that should have been settled years ago between the university employers and employees. 75,000 students have joined legal actions to demand compensation from universities due to lost learning because of the strikes and the prolonged impacts of COVID-19. Many students experiencing the impacts of the strikes are the same students that were isolating in their accommodation when teaching was transferred online. Fears of incompleted courses due to the disruption are prevalent in students’ minds.

Students’ voices are largely neglected within this debate

Medical students in particular are witnessing the deteriorating relationship of the government and the NHS, alongside exposure to unsustainable working conditions. Some medical students do not support the Strikes Bill as they believe they are students of the universities but also the NHS. With strike action affecting their current education, after graduation many face a future in a heavily understaffed NHS.

There are many ways to support the strikes such as signing petitions and letters of support, attending the protests and rallies. If students wish to minimise impacted learning, they should continue to attend lectures and complete work until directly told otherwise.

When it comes to negotiations to end the strikes, it is a battle fought out between the government, university employers and employees. Students’ voices are largely neglected within this debate, therefore active participation and vocalisation on the issue will help improve discussions for students regarding strike action and the anti-strike Bill.

Lucy Popham

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

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