The University and College Union (UCU) announced this week that staff at 60 universities including Bath will go on strike between Monday 25thNovember and Friday 4thDecember. During this time, they will be absent from their usual duties and will not get paid for the time off work. The UCU is the main trade union representing the interests of university staff, with over 110,000 members ranging from lecturers to librarians. As a result, this industrial action is likely to affect most students as the majority of lecturers will be members of the UCU.
This strike reflects two main grievances which have been building for university staff in since 2011 – one concerning changes to pensions, and another protesting the increased casualisation of employment for academics. It was this same sense of feeling undervalued and overworked which led to the 40-day strikes in 2017, and this frustration has clearly not gone away.
The changes to pensions since 2011 have meant that a typical university employee would pay £40,000 more into their pension during their career but receive £200,000 less over the course of their retirement. The University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the body that pays the pensions, has said that changes were inevitable given that people are living longer, making the previous arrangement unfeasible in the long term. They claim that even after the changes, the scheme offered to universities is far more generous than most private pension schemes.
All other things being equal, working in the private sector usually entails a higher salary than the public sector. To compensate for this, public sector workers usually have more rights as employees; for example flexibility around part-time work and other commitments like childcare, more holiday, and greater contributions to their pensions by their employer.
The problem is, universities are not like most public sector employers. Since the introduction of tuition fees they are technically private institutions, but are still run similarly to public bodies with the accompanying rates of pay. Although the average lecturer earns above the UK median salary, the years of study and academic expertise required to follow this career must also be taken into consideration.
Academics are becoming increasingly frustrated that they are getting the worst of both worlds – the salary of public sector workers but without the comparatively considerate employment conditions. This is reflected in the next major grievance – the increased casualisation of employment for academics. The UCU estimates that over half of its academics are on temporary contracts, which means that their jobs are precarious and up for renegotiation year on year. To add to that, academics estimate they work the equivalent two days a week unpaid.More and more are complaining of burnout and being signed off for stress, feeling overworked and exploited by their employers and therefore unable to do the best for their students. An academic career is usually a vocational one, requiring passion for a subject; but an increasing number of highly qualified and enthusiastic academics are leaving the sector altogether.
The timing of the strikes will undoubtedly impact upon students’ learning and may mean that examinations and presentations have to be rearranged or cancelled. Some lecturers will put course materials from missed lecturers online, but this is at their discretion .Lecturers are also not obligated to tell students which classes will be cancelled.
The debate over the extent to which students feel they are directly losing money as a result of the strikes is indicative of a wide range of perspectives on what tuition fees actually buy, with the high cost frequently cited in anti-strike arguments. Can the value of a degree be calculated hour by hour in monetary terms, are you there to enrich your knowledge of a subject, or are you simply paying for a qualification title to access the next step in your career?
Ultimately the arguments for and against the strikes are another reflection of the odd position universities occupy somewhere between the public and the private sector. The repositioning of students as consumers of a service they have paid for has fundamentally changed their relationship to their universities and lecturers, as the concept of ‘value for money’ has understandably gained increasing importance.
Academics are aware that their predicament is not the fault of students, but feel that this is a last resort as a result of consistently being side-lined in negotiations for workable conditions. As students, it’s up to us to decide individually whether the short-term damage to the quality of learning is a worthwhile exchange for the long-term benefit of having lecturers whose needs are respected and who are given the time to do the best for their students.
The NUS has supported the strikes, and the SU will hold a referendum in the coming week to gauge student support before announcing its position.