Writing by Nastya Kabeleva.
If this isn’t your first year at University, you have most likely heard or experienced the joy of the strikes, and if you haven’t – welcome! Despite them happening nearly every year except last, many of us may still be unaware as to what they mean or why they happen. And the fact that they have become so common in the University experience is a big reason as to why we should become more aware of the issue and what it means for us.
The University and Colleges Union (UCU) is a Union that protects and represents over “130,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations” all over the UK. Members of the UCU, such as our lecturers and tutors, are able to cast their votes for the Four Fights Ballot or the USS Pension Ballot if they wish to partake in industrial action, and if the turnout for the branch exceeds 50%, then that institution takes part in industrial strike action. If you are part of the Union and your institution votes to strike, you must strike. The results for this year’s ballot were announced in November 2021, and University of Edinburgh will be striking against both pay and pension.
So why are the strikes happening?
Over the course of the last 12 years, staff pay has fallen by 20% below the inflation pay offers, and there is no prevention of this happening further. Simultaneously, staff are experiencing cuts to their pensions – while the Union reports that Universities UK have continued claiming the cuts to the USS pension would be between 10% to 18%, the USS’s own modelling portrays them to be around 36%.
As well as this, there is massive ‘casualisation’ in academic contracts as “90,000 academic and academic-related staff are employed on insecure contracts.” Casual contracts mean that the staff member has no certainty regarding the duration and consistency of their contracts. The UCU research showed that 42% of staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills, while many others struggle to make long-term financial commitments like buying a house.
Our student expectations have risen – but staff’s workload or numbers have not. Working conditions are not being addressed, as contracts are not being respected by employers.
As the strikes begin, staff will stand at the picket line with signs that may read ‘don’t cross the picket line!’. GOV.UK identifies that “a picket line is where workers and union reps (‘picketers’ or ‘pickets’) stand outside a workplace to tell other people why they are striking.” A picket line will usually be located at the main entrance to university buildings. The picket line is NOT there to intimidate you or stop you from entering the building – You are encouraged to not cross it, but you will not be stopped if you do.
I got the chance to have some questions answered by a few members of staff of this University – Dr Megan Hunt and Dr Emile Chabal – who discuss what the strike action means to them as well as why it is important for students to be involved.
Q. Why are you striking?
Megan: “We all work significantly beyond what we are paid for. The hours we put in the week, the amount of teaching workload we go through and hours we put in with the students, we do it because we care and we enjoy it, but I think the pandemic has exposed how easily that can be exploited. Because they know we care and that we wouldn’t ignore our students, I think realistically, any institution would not have survived the pandemic had every member of stuff done everything they could to teach themselves how to teach online, how to use all the technology, none of which we had been trained to do. And we did it, because it’s the right thing to do, but there was never any recognition of that by the university.”
“For a more personal perspective, I have been in Edinburgh for more than 5 years but have only been made permanent within the last year, so I’ve had lots of temporary contracts. Even though I’m permanent now, it takes a long time to feel secure because you have been temporary for so long – I still don’t feel like I am, because all those anxieties of income and stuff do weigh in on you.”
Q. Can you please describe how the overload of work and hours affects your delivery of education to students?
Emile: “Covid was wretched for us. None of us got furlough, you won’t find a teaching academic in UK who got furlough. Some researchers do, but every member of staff was not. So, no one was getting the possibility of relief, despite the weird circumstance. And of course, now, admissions have shot up, so we are flooded with students. And this has a knock-on effect – the more students there are, the more difficult it is to give students personal attention. Trying to do your job well leaves no time for extra things, and it feels relentless.”
Megan: “Most of us are contracted for 35hrs, but realistically are doing 50/60h+. Which unfortunately means we have to make choices, and there are parts of the job you just don’t do because you don’t have time. For most of us it means we don’t do any research, but research is fundamental to what we do. It’s how we design our teaching materials, how we are able to update our courses. It means we don’t have time to alter course work according to student feedback. The personal tutor system also struggles – it means we have to be reactive, so if a student contacts us, obviously we will help them, but realistically we should be in more regular contact with all our personal tutees. I’ve got more than 30 personal tutees as well as all of my teaching, meaning I can’t schedule a meeting with them every few weeks. And so unfortunately this system means we only speak when things have already gone wrong, because we can’t catch up regularly.”
Q. How do pension cuts affect you and your attitude towards the University?
Emile: “We’ve seen things, and it’s pretty shitty. I think there’s no doubt that all this industrial action has led to a deterioration of relationship between the teaching body of the university and the management body of the university. It makes us feel less excited about academia, when let’s face it, vast majority of us are doing it because we like it, there a lot of objective reasons you would go do something else, like more money and that. We do it because we love it.”
Megan: “I don’t feel like the university values me or values what any of us do. I think they take on students and assumes ‘oh they will deal with that’.. As long as people are graduating and enrolling, then we are doing our jobs as far as they are concerned.”
“There has been no pay rises in academia since 2009. So, if you don’t have a pay raise for a number of years, it actually becomes a pay cut, because obviously inflation and cost of living are going up. Our immediate pay is not reflective of what we do, our hours, or social changes.”
Q. The Russell Group responded to the UCU industrial action announcement suggesting that staff striking “will not change the need for reform and will only disrupt students who have already faced a challenging 18 months” – In your opinion, what relevance does greed have in the Russell Group and this University?
Emile: “University Employers have a strong tendency to prioritise prestige image over staff working conditions. I’m not sympathetic to the university, because covid did not bring the financial crisis that it was expected to bring. If universities like Edinburgh had objectively lost a lot of money, then okay, we would be like “let’s keep our head down for a bit”, but it’s not been the case. University of Edinburgh or alike have not suffered, it has been the lower institutions, whose departments are forced to close. Universities lower down are feeling the heat, but not this university. So, when they tell us to buckle up, it’s like, well come on, not buying that.”
Megan: “Why does the university need to be in a surplus? So, Edinburgh announced last year they were in a massive surplus. They have money, there is an excess of money. So I don’t understand how you can know that so many staff are unhappy that they are prepared to take strike action year after year, how you cannot equate that that money can be better used. Even if you don’t actually care, not care about the conditions, even if you just wanted to minimise the disruption, the money is there.”
Q. Why do you think students should support the industrial action?
Emile: “British universities are obsessed with the university experience – they are going to be more likely to listen to students than us staff. You’ll know that cause you get plied with surveys about university every 10min. If you are not happy about this specific issue that staff have, that’s important. We need you as allies to win the war of words, to win the image war, because universities and their reps always pass staff striking as opposing students. So if students come out to support, then that image can’t be portrayed, the narrative of staff vs students won’t hold.”
We feel guilty about cancelling classes, about letting our students down, not being in the classroom teaching. I don’t like not being in the classroom, I like teaching. The students showing solidarity is an important way of demonstrating that you guys understand, and that it’s also about you. Its not about ‘we strike for pay and pensions because we’re really greedy and we want more money’. We strike because the things you want and need as students are attention, our care, responses to emails – all that is dependent on this bigger sets of issues. For those of us who do take part, seeing students taking part and trying to understand is important.”
Megan: “I know its cheesy, but our working conditions are your learning conditions. If I’m overworked or busy, I cannot give you the teaching or the support that you deserve. If I’m incredibly busy all the time, I can’t mark things quickly, or respond to emails quickly. What you want from me is being jeopardised by how overworked we are.”
“My courses are popular, and modules are always full, and yet I’ve been temporary for years before. I could be a massive part of people’s degree, and yet every summer I didn’t know if I would be coming back in September. And I think students care about who teaches their course.”
“Our pensions being at risk, and them not wanting to pay us in line with the inflation, is the same financial tightness that they are also showing you when you ask for mental health services or better student support services. If they undervalue us, they undervalue you, because they are showing they don’t care who teaches you.”
The issues that impact staff, impact students too – we all deserve better treatment. Many students pay a lot of money to go here, and we should really begin to question what we are paying for, because realistically speaking, we are all consumers of this educational product. Are any of us satisfied? The constant strike action from staff members, as well as multiple student-led protests, would suggest we are not.
Thing you can do;
Show support on picket lines, as well as avoid crossing them.
Write to Peter Mathieson about the issue and your concern (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Visit the UCU website for any further reading.
A big thank you to Dr Megan Hunt and Dr Emile Chabal for partaking in this piece.
‘Russel Group Response to UCU announcement on December Industrial action’ (November 17, 2021) https://russellgroup.ac.uk/news/russell-group-response-to-ucu-announcement-on-december-industrial-action/
‘Staff at Scottish universities begin striking over pay dispute’ (December 1, 2021) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-59480662
UCU Scotland Strikes begin after bosses refuse to budge on pensions, pay and working conditions (December 1, 2021) https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/11914/Scotland-strikes-begin-after-bosses-refuse-to-budge-on-pensions-pay-and-working-conditions#:~:text=Three%20consecutive%20days%20of%20strike,pay%20and%20worsening%20working%20conditions
‘Taking part in industrial action and strikes’ GOV.UK https://www.gov.uk/industrial-action-strikes/going-on-strike-and-picketing