Tomorrow, academic and non-academic staff alike at 61 universities across the country will abandon the comfort of their warm lecture theaters and offices to stand and picket in the February cold and rain. Many expect to encounter criticism from students and even fellow staff. All of them will sacrifice more than half a month’s salary. However, what can pain them most is that they will be unable to teach subjects that they love to some of the brightest and most engaged students in the country.
At first glance, it is hard to understand why our staff are subjecting themselves to such drastic measures. I am not going to subject you to the minutiae of the ongoing pensions dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK), as there is plenty of information is available online. But the bottom line is that our staff, through no fault of their own, can expect to lose on average £10,000 a year through changes to pensions. One member of staff told me that the proposed reforms would ultimately cost her in excess of £700,000! Can you honestly say that if you were in the same position as our staff, out of other options, you too would not reluctantly come to the same decision?
The proposed reforms are no way to treat our already grossly underpaid staff, many of whom turn down jobs in the private sector that would pay double, or even triple, what they currently earn; largely out of a sincerely held commitment to public duty and teaching you, their students. After years of government cuts, one of the last redeeming features of a career at university is a reasonable pension scheme that compensates for the fact that most academic staff do not start earning until their thirties. If the proposed pension reforms go through, we can be sure to see further talent being drawn away from higher education and into the private sector. The remaining staff will be severely demoralized, and we may well find that the goodwill required to to work up to 20 hours a week in unpaid overtime, as many staff do, runs dry. All of our education will suffer for it.
The mass exodus of our valued staff over the next few weeks is, of course, inherently disruptive. If you feel that you deserve a partial refund of your tuition fees, then please petition the senior management. You will find that you have the backing of much of the staff. The pension dispute, rising rent prices, and our ludicrously high fees are all symptomatic of the same problem: the marketization of education. Not only has this raised the cost of university for all of us, but there is evidence that the more students view themselves as consumers, the worse they perform.
Supporting our staff could hardly be any easier. If it is a strike day, stay in bed! You will avoid the disappointment of travelling up to uni to an empty lecture theatre, and you will contribute towards pressurizing our senior management and UUK (where our dear leader Glynis Breakwell is still Bath University’s representative at a comparatively ridiculously high salary). You could even go one step further and join students and staff on the picket lines. Last year, students and staff joined forces in protest for the first time since the 1980s and achieved instant results. The same is possible again, and it is the only way to bring the strikes to a premature end. Our staff have consistently been on our side, from tuition fees, to the Vice-Chancellors pay, to our extortionate rent. They deserve us to be on theirs.
If you want to email the university to help put an end to the strikes, UCU have put together a useful template (feel free to add a demand for a refund of your tuition fees) https://www.ucu.org.uk/studentvoice
POLIS staff will be hosting a series of lectures and discussions on strike days at the Bell Inn, all students are welcome https://www.facebook.com/events/877590992420290/
Sign the petition to put staff wages withheld during cuts into the university hardship fund and mental health services http://bath.web.ucu.org.uk/2018/02/18/petition-strike-hardship-mental-health/