Why we should all support the lecturer's strikes


Nicholas Hayes makes the case for supporting striking University staff this academic year

Article Image

Image by Arthur Farr

By Nicholas Hayes

At the time of writing this, it has recently been announced that university staff will be going on strike. For all of us involved, students and staff, it won’t be easy. However, before the hot takes on confession pages come out, I want to offer you the case for why we should all be standing shoulder to shoulder with the people who have supported us through our degrees thus far.

And before I go any further, yes, we all see the lecturer’s going on strike, but I want to make it clear the strike covers many other University workers, such as librarians, technicians and admissions staff to name a few.

On 24 October, the University Colleges Union (or UCU for short) announced they had successfully balloted the staff of 150 universities over strike action on two separate issues. The results had to satisfy the conditions of the 2016 Trade Unions Act, which requires a turnout of over 50 percent and for the votes to be returned in the post.

The first of these ballots was on the broad issue of pay, which is currently being cut, and conditions, which are worsening year by year.

Despite inflation reaching 10.1 percent, with many struggling with a cost of living crisis, universities have only offered their staff a measly three percent pay increase.

Simultaneously, an increasing number of university staff are on casualised contracts, an exploitative form of employment designed to trap vulnerable staff in a dreadful cycle of fearing they will not be rehired at the end of the year. By holding staff in fixed-term contracts with short notice on whether they will be rehired, their lives become that much harder as they worry about whether they will be in a job in nine months. This cycle can last for years.

Naturally, the use of these contracts has a massive impact on the teaching quality for us students, as anxious staff are now unable to focus on their job in the way that they could have had they been given permanent contracts.

Casualisation is also damaging to the quality of research. A report by the UCU found that those on casualised contracts don’t experience the same academic freedoms as their colleagues on permanent contracts because their research is dependent on if their managers are happy to rehire them the next year. A heavier emphasis on casualisation stops research from progressing as it otherwise could, as it is constrained by the whims of a select few managers.

If all this wasn’t bad enough for university staff, they also had a separate vote to take action on the deliberate downgrading of their pension scheme.

During the worst months of Covid, the pension scheme for staff at universities, known as the University Superannuation Scheme went under revaluation, with significant cuts proposed. At the time, UCU suggested compromise proposals to replace the cuts, but these were rejected, and the new proposal was voted through in April by a committee within UUK (Universities UK).

This April 2022 package of cuts included a cut to pension accrual rates and a cap on protection against inflation. The pension cuts may see a typical lecturer lose at least 35 percent from their guaranteed retirement income, which for some will rise as high as 41 percent. The cuts to pensions come alongside falling pay in the sector. UCU estimates that staff pay has now fallen by 25.5 percent after a series of below inflation pay offers since 2009.

What of the so-called “middle-ground” view, those who sympathise with what university staff have to go through, yet still condemn the strikes? To deconstruct this view, we need to appreciate that striking is never a first resort for workers. Not only will this be a significant reduction of income, as they will not be paid on days they strike, many university staff actually enjoy teaching, hence why they organise “teach-outs” in pubs.

Behind the scenes, many months of failed negotiations have led us to this point. Unfortunately, in the case of the pension dispute, strikes have occurred and will continue to occur because of a bullish pension fund, who think they can opportunistically make some quick cash and get away with it. But when this happens time and time again, it’s not just the university staff that will suffer: all of us who use universities will be subject to the effects of them stripping down the university for their own gain.

So when we hear that a strike, or “Anything Short Of a Strike”, has been called, that is the point at which the negotiations have, for the time being, broken down. A strike occurs when there are no other options left on the table. Therefore, to keep condemning the strike at the point when negotiations fail is to be complicit in giving staff a pay cut, keeping them trapped in exploitative contracts and taking money from their pension pot.

At the time of writing this, I do not know whether YUSU's referendum vote on the proposal to support the strikes has passed. To be optimistic, I could hope the University Superannuation Scheme may have backed down and a national framework for decasualisation is about to be announced. But, assuming the worst, so long as the strikes are going ahead, these fundamental injustices within the very walls of our universities will remain. I hope every one of us will agree that now is the time to put them right.