As you may be aware, lecturers represented by the University and College Union (UCU) will be going on strike later this week – specifically, the 24th, 25th and 30th of November. Like many of you, I had questions about the strikes. Why were they happening, what did lecturers want, how would this affect students? A discussion with Fran Amery, a lecturer in PoLIS and Vice-President of the Bath UCU committee, shed light on some key information.
Hi Fran – in your own words, why are you striking?
We are in dispute with employers over two different issues: one concerning pensions and one concerning pay and working conditions.
On pensions: huge cuts were imposed in March (about 35% for the average member of staff). These were not necessary according to the pension scheme’s own figures. But the scheme’s directors have refused to reverse them.
What exactly does this mean for your pension – if this were to continue, would you be able to live off of your pension, or have to rely on savings/be unable to retire?
This will vary from person to person. For me, the loss stings but – assuming the state pension isn’t cut horrifically – I’ll be okay. But I was lucky to get my first open-ended contract at a relatively young age. Staff who have spent a lot of time bouncing between insecure and underpaid posts won’t have been able to pay so much into their pension, and yes, many people are worried about their ability to live comfortably in retirement.
(We move back to the reasons for striking)
On pay and working conditions: our pay has fallen by around 25% in real terms since 2009. This year we were offered a pay uplift of 3% despite inflation being around 12% – so actually a pay cut. Pay is even worse for some groups: nationally, there is a gender pay gap in universities of 16%, a 17% pay gap between Black and white staff, and a 9% pay gap between disabled and non-disabled staff.
Casualisation and precarious employment are rife across the sector, and this is getting worse – around a third of academic staff in the UK are employed on fixed-term contracts. Jumping from short-term contract to short-term contract has a massive impact on people’s lives and wellbeing – it makes it difficult to settle down, get a mortgage, or start a family (remember that these are often people who have already invested years of their life into getting a PhD!) At the same time, we are all dealing with excessive and unmanageable workloads, which also have a huge impact on wellbeing.
What does “excessive and unmanageable workloads” look like? Is this the result of the increased need for universities to operate like businesses?
Teaching workloads have increased due to universities increasing student numbers without increasing staff numbers proportionally, which is connected to the pressure on universities to compete for tuition fees. But pressure to win research grant money is also increasing.
Are there plans to challenge the way the government has forced universities to operate and is there room to work with the university on this subject?
UCU has campaigned against tuition fees ever since they were introduced and will continue to do so. But, given the current political climate, sadly I don’t think University figures would see this as worth making noise about.
(Again, we move back to the reasons for striking)
Universities have the money to address these problems – the sector’s overall income is higher than ever. But they are spending an ever-decreasing amount of their money on staff, instead using much of it to invest in buildings.
For instance, the new management building?
Striking is a last resort: we will be sacrificing our pay in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and in the run-up to Christmas. But it is the only way for us to get the leverage we need to bring employers back to the table.
What do the strikes hope to achieve, specifically at the University of Bath?
Pay and pensions can only be addressed at the national level – universities are bound by national agreements on pay and by USS, the pension provider for pre-1992 universities nationally. So, we require a strong strike nationally, not just locally, to address these issues.
Individual universities have more scope to act to address excessive workloads, casualisation and pay gaps. But there is limited incentive for them to do so when they are so focused on competing with other universities in the tuition fee marketplace. National strike action gives them that incentive, and we are calling for nationally agreed frameworks to tackle these issues. But striking also helps us hold the University of Bath’s feet to the fire when it comes to taking action locally. The union is currently in negotiations with the University on casualisation and equality pay gaps, and we know from experience that the University is more likely to take action issues when staff show they are serious about them by going on strike.
Why is boycotting lectures, marking and assessment the approach being taken?
Initially, we will only be striking for 3 days in November, but there will be further strikes and a marking and assessment boycott in the new year if no resolution is reached. Combining striking with a marking and assessment boycott has proven to be a very effective way of forcing employers back to the negotiating table. Last year, this approach was successfully used at the University of Liverpool to prevent dozens of compulsory redundancies. The threat of combining strategies this way will hopefully mean that the disputes can be resolved as quickly as possible and hopefully further action in 2023 won’t be necessary.
Currently, any assessments that are boycotted could be marked later in the year – would this be the case? If not, and you are forced to strike in 2023, what does this mean for graduating students?
Once the boycott is called off, we would go back to marking assessments. Strike ballots only provide a legal mandate for action for six months, so the latest we would resume marking is April 2023. However, if there is still no resolution, it’s possible that there could be a further ballot that would impact summer assessments. If that happens, then graduations could be delayed until the dispute is resolved.
What is your response to those who say this approach punishes students more than your employers?
The SU put it brilliantly in their statement on the strike: improvements in staff working conditions are in students’ interest. Overworked, underpaid, tired and stressed staff can’t give their all to their jobs and that ultimately means that students suffer. Put a different way: universities’ refusal to invest properly in staff punishes students and staff.
Some have said the strikes hurt students more than the university as, often, they do not know if their lecturer is striking and therefore come to campus and spend money at university outlets. They miss a lecture, but the university still makes money. What is your response to this?
First, it’s worth noting that the University doesn’t make a lot of money from campus outlets (as expensive as they may seem!)
We encourage union members to proactively talk to their students about the strike if they feel able, so many students will already know if their lecturers are going on strike.
Some have also said a better approach would be to teach off campus and refuse to use university spaces – what is your response to this?
Teaching our normal lectures and classes off-campus would undermine the point of the strike as we’d still be undertaking labour for the University, so this wouldn’t be disruptive. In the past, we’ve organised teach-outs off campus – basically an alternative and more radical series of teaching events for students to attend instead of their normal teaching. We don’t currently have any organised for this wave of strikes, but this might change, and if we’re striking in 2023, it’s very likely we’ll include some teach-outs.
What would support from students look like?
Lots of things! It means a lot when students talk to us or email us to tell us they support us, so that’s a great start. You can also visit us on the picket lines (at the three main entrances to campus and at the Virgil Building on the mornings of the 24th and 25th of November) – we always love to see students at the pickets. Ideally, you’ll show your solidarity by refusing to cross the picket line yourself, though we understand that this isn’t always possible (for example, for students whose visa requires them to be on campus at certain times).
You can also write to the Vice-Chancellor (email@example.com) to ask that he publicly call upon UCEA and UUK to offer deals acceptable to UCU. And you can follow and RT/like @UCUBath on Twitter/@bath_ucu on Instagram and send messages in support of striking staff demands on social media (tag #ucurising, #bathucurising @UCUBath, @UCU, @UniofBath).
In other words, why should students support the strikes?
Our working conditions are your learning conditions!