The UCU strike explained: staff who are overworked and underpaid.
Updated: Sep 1
By Grace Lewis
Following in the footsteps of many sectors in the current economic climate, in early November the UCU voted to go on strike at 150 universities seeking fairer pay, better working conditions and more secure pensions. The industrial action taken between the 24th and 30th of November 2022 was the largest university strike in history, with 70,000 staff reported to be on the picket lines. Their demands were fair and simple, including five major points: protected pensions, fair pay, an end to casualisation, renegotiated workload and equality in the workplace. The desire for a wage which will help staff afford to live comfortably during this cost-of-living crisis is far from unreasonable. Alarmingly, hearing first-hand accounts of staff who said they could not afford to strike due to the penalty of lost wages put this into perspective. In a time when staff and students alike are struggling with record-high inflation standing at 11% and are facing the current energy crisis, the university should be offering more support in the form of pay rises and energy bill contributions. So far, the proposal of a £550 one-off payment for staff in lower-income bands and access to financial-platform to help with budgeting is insulting, when since 2019, staff have lost on average 25.9% of real-time wages and are set to lose an average of 35% of retirement income.
[...]students are not getting a diverse perspective, research will remain colonised, and the culture of academia will remain male-dominated, all while women in higher education remain underappreciated and underrepresented.
Moreover, research has found that over a third of staff are on temporary and precarious contracts which poses two main issues. The first is the constant insecurity staff are facing having a pragmatic impact on their lives and research. According to figures in the UCU report “counting the costs of casualisation in higher education”, 83% of respondents said it made long-term financial commitments like buying a house difficult and 89% said they had considered leaving the sector within the last year. This threatens future academic research and the future of higher education. On top of this, contracts that don’t give staff guaranteed hours has created a constant worry, not only about paying bills but about future employment security, which partially explains the 316% increase in staff accessing mental health services since 2015. It also impacts students too as they face several seminar tutors a year and several personal tutors throughout their degree causing them disruption also.
The second main issue with casualised contracts is the inequality in the sector that they perpetuate. Women are adversely affected by this, as shown by research conducted by the UCU in the ‘Precarious work in higher education' report in 2019. Potential reasons for this could include the lack of maternity pay and the prevention of mothers from returning to work and gaining contracts following their leave of absence. For example, at Warwick only 21% of professors identified as women, highlighting significant discrepancies between staff on casualised contracts and those on fixed contracts. It is clear that there are structural issues with the current processes of casualisation and promotion that disadvantage female staff. This means that students are not getting a diverse perspective, research will remain colonised, and the culture of academia will remain male-dominated, all while women in higher education remain underappreciated and underrepresented. Aside from the impacts contracts and pay are having on staff and their families, there is also an extensive impact on students. As the popular phrase goes “staff’s working conditions are students learning conditions.” When students are paying £9,250 (over £21,000 for international students) in fees every year, and receiving lecturers from staff who are overworked and underpaid, are we really receiving good value for money? The marketisation of higher education, continually putting profit over people, is ruining the sector. Students have less contact time and face degradation of the quality of their education.
From a student’s perspective, anger about the disruption caused should not be directed at staff but at institutions themselves which continually take advantage of both staff and students alike for purposes of profit and prestige. Having staff who are not only knowledgeable and passionate about a subject but who also have enough time to prepare for lectures, not rush the marking process and also devote more time to office hours would be beneficial for our academic development. And having staff who are not concerned about paying the bills, going hungry or freezing in their homes is not asking for too much from universities either. That’s why I joined the staff on the picket line.
From a student’s perspective, anger about the disruption caused should not be directed at staff but at institutions themselves, which continually take advantage of both staff and students alike for purposes of profit and prestige.
Staff don’t want to be stood out in the cold in the winter months, missing a day's pay, but what choice do they have but to fight for justice and for the integrity of the sector they care so deeply about? Hearing staff’s stories on the picket line of burnout, economic hardship and the helplessness they feel quickly puts missing a few lectures into perspective. Staff are also very conscious of the impact their working conditions and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis are having on students’ education, giving them further reason to be on the picket line; striking staff have lobbied the university to donate lost pay to the student hardship fund as a direct result of this.
Too often the media takes a student vs staff mentality when discussing the strikes, but in reality, we all have the same goals of living comfortably and an improved education system. The recent results of the All-Student Vote conducted by the SU signified this, as most students are fully supportive of staff intentions and voted to support the strikes. This was also shown by the sheer number of students who stood alongside staff on the picket line and the number of societies who postponed events. Having this student support in the months to come will be essential, as the longer the picket, the shorter the strikes. The more pressure placed on institutions, and the more support the staff get, the better. In a country with the 6th biggest economy in the world (by nominal GDP), no-one should be relying on food banks or ‘warm hubs.’ Not our lecturers, and not our students. It is clear that system change is needed, not just in the higher education sector but beyond. Until universities and the government value these workers it is only understandable why they strike and why these strikes are bigger than ever before. Our lecturers are overworked and underpaid, affecting both students and staff and that’s why I, and many others will continue to fight.
Photo Credit: Universities and Colleges Union website resources (https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/12475/Resources#Supporters)