The stereotype of universities stuffed full of well-paid academics having an easy life took a blow this week. A strike at 60 universities was joined by many workers on contracts where, if all their hours were taken into account, they earn less than the minimum wage.
More than half of university workers are on insecure, fixed-term contracts.
Cambridge graduate student Marina told a strike rally last week, “I was really excited when I got a teaching job – for about three weeks. Then I realised I had to spend 12 hours preparing for teaching – including all the admin, booking rooms, sending emails.
“If all that was taken into account I was being paid £4 an hour.”
Over 43,000 UCU union members across Britain joined the eight-day strike over pay, pensions, equality, contracts and workload. Their pay has effectively been cut by 20 percent in a decade. And it’s women and black workers that are suffering the most – with many getting paid less for doing the same work as their colleagues.
Bosses want staff to pay more into their pension scheme – and get less when they retire.
After a recent increase, staff are already paying 9.6 percent of their salaries in pension contributions – yet the attacks keep coming. The union estimates that, overall, changes to the pension could leave lecturers about £240,000 worse off in retirement, rising to £730,000 for professors.
All this comes from a drive to turn universities into businesses, students into consumers and staff into cogs. But workers are fighting back.
Arielle is on strike at Cambridge university. She told Socialist Worker, “This is tapping into a broader feeling about how we want the world to look. There’s a battle going on.
“It feels like the soul of higher education is at stake.”
Geography lecturer Maan added, “It’s about the future of our conditions in education. Pay and pensions are just the tip of the iceberg.”
University bosses dishing out crappy contracts are seen as doing workers a favour. “There’s an assumption that we should be grateful for the ‘learning experience’,” said Marina.
“But we’re not learning a whole lot.”
The situation shapes the whole of workers’ lives. “As a PhD student my future looks pretty bleak,” Anna told Socialist Worker. “It’s assumed that we will have to move around the country on a series of short-term contracts.
“My friends are settling down and having children and I’m floating, not really knowing where I’m going to end up.”
It hurts health, too.
“I’ve been on a casual contract for the last few years,” said Lana. “I’m really angry. We don’t get sick pay, we don’t get a decent pension.
“It’s affected my mental health and my physical health. I had an accident that injured my back and I didn’t take as much time off as I needed afterwards. We’re treated like second class citizens.”
Lana was employed by the Temporary Employment Service (TES) at Cambridge – or Temporary Exploitation Service as one striker dubbed it. It takes people on for contracts of up to nine months at a time.
Having recently finished a TES contract Lana now has an 18-month fixed-term contract – the longest she’s ever had.
Some workers have to choose between a secure contract or more pay.
“To get a pay rise I had to exchange my permanent contract for a fixed term one,” said Justin. “I was on a very low grade. And as people left in my department, I took on more responsibility – five or six grades higher.
“But they wouldn’t change my grade without giving me a new job title – on an insecure contract.”
Strikers are losing eight days’ pay and for those who already earn little it can be scary. “It’s a really hard thing for me to strike,” said Justin. “It’s killing me financially. But at the end of the day, it’s about the bigger picture.”
This is tapping into broader feelings about how we want the world to look
Universities are raking in billions in student fees. But the money seems to go on vice chancellors’ salaries, flashy new buildings or other dubious projects.
“Universities are investing in oil and gas, but not in their people,” said PhD student Tania.
Tania is one of many students who have swung into action to back the strikes. As she put it, “We’re the next generation. More job insecurity isn’t what we need.”
Students have organised to help on picket lines and bring much appreciated food and hot drinks to strikers. Some have staged small occupations in support of the strikes.
Teaching associate Bethan told Socialist Worker, “I’ve been overwhelmed by the student support. One student turned up on his bike and said he’d seen about the strike on Facebook and just had to come.
“He brought us four packets of biscuits. Little things like that are really touching.”
There’s also a different kind of education going on. “Students are asking us what a picket line is,” Bethan said.
Carol added, “Many more students are joining our picket lines than in the past. More people know the dangers of marketisation and casualisation. Students who want to go into academia know that these things will have an impact on them.”
As PhD student Bianca put it, “I’m out here because this is my future. I’d been climate striking and then I heard about this and I thought – this is serious.”
Tania pointed out that driving down conditions hits oppressed groups harder and entrenches class division. “People who are better off can afford to do internships or unpaid graduate schemes,” she explained.
“Maybe they can live with their parents. But poorer people don’t have that support to fall back on. And the gender pay gap makes it harder for women to be in what’s already a male-dominated area.”
PhD student and striker Jess agreed that the situation feels “exclusionary”.
She said poor contracts meant working in universities “can’t be the only thing you’re doing to survive”. Some workers have second jobs.
Anger at deteriorating conditions has been bubbling away for years. Now it has generated a deep determination to resist.
Justin said he would “absolutely” support more strikes.
Carol said, “Everybody’s feeling really solid. So if there is no movement, we will have to take more action. And I think colleagues in other institutions want to be out with us too, after seeing these strikes.
“I’m cautiously optimistic.”
“This has brought a lot of people together,” added striker Peter. “We’ve realised we have a common goal.”
Arielle said, “I would 100 percent support more strikes. The whole point of coming out for eight days is to show we mean business. And the fact the union is reballoting more branches shows it wants to continue.”
Bethan felt the strike was continuing an important tradition. “My great grandfather was the first secretary of the South Wales Miners’ union,” she said. “I think he would be very proud.”
More set to join the strike
Strikers have been cheered by news that their union is set to reballot more branches to join the fight. The reballots will involve 13 branches that overwhelmingly voted for action but missed the 50 percent turnout threshold.
It’s good that future strikes will involve more people. But the reballots won’t end until 28 January.
Mark Abel is a striker at Brighton university and is on the union’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “It’s great that the reballots are going to get underway. But it should have happened quicker, and it should have involved more branches.”
Roddy Slorach is branch organiser at Imperial College London, one of the colleges reballoting. He said the branch had already got “loads of extra volunteers” to help get the vote out in the reballot.
“We wanted it to start on the first day of the first round of strikes and wrap up before Christmas,” he said. “It would have been great if the bosses went into Christmas knowing that the cavalry is coming over the hill.
“But now the second wave of action is unlikely to start until the second week of February. There is clearly some opposition at the top of the union about the radicalisation that’s going on.”
The strikes so far have been magnificent. Now the union needs to capitalise on a fantastic start by naming more dates in the new year – before Christmas. There is a clear mood to fight.
Liverpool university kicked off the action with 32 picket lines. Branch chair Jo McNeill says, “The fight is well and truly on.”
Mark said picket lines at Brighton “are stronger than we’ve ever seen”. And John Parrington, a striker at Oxford university, said pickets there were bigger than during a strike last year. He added that the action is opening up other struggles.
“A big issue in Oxford is that the colleges don’t recognise unions,” he told Socialist Worker. “So now we are campaigning over that. Before it was assumed that we can’t really do anything about it.”
Anne Alexander from Cambridge also said strikes have transformed union branches. “Our anti-casualisation movement was born out of the 2018 strike,” she said.
“That’s what gave people confidence and changed the level of organisation. It’s the strikes that will change things.”
Last year’s strike saw UCU members at over 60 universities strike for 14 days to defend their USS pension scheme. Union leaders suspended the action and a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was set up to look at the scheme. Now bosses and USS officials are ignoring its recommendations.
“What really pisses people off is that the JEP was sidelined,” said University College London striker Andrea. “It really rankles.”
The bosses can’t be trusted. But more action can beat them.