Defending Higher Education – Support the UCU strike!


“What students and staff need is a break with failing marketisation which incentivises university bosses to spend more on shiny new buildings, dubious management consultancy, and flashy PR”

By Lorcan Whitehead

Earlier this month, university workers up and down the country walked out for three consecutive days of strike action. Action short of a strike is ongoing, and we are expecting further strike days in the new year. If you’ve heard anything about the issues behind the strike you’ve probably heard that it’s about pensions, but in fact it’s about much more.

Officially we are striking over two disputes, the first and most well-known is over a scandalous attempt to slash our pensions by as much as 25-30%. According to employers and the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), who run the scheme, this is necessary because the fund is in dire financial straits. Yet this is an entirely confected crisis caused by needlessly pessimistic assumptions about the value of the fund.

USS’s most recent valuation was conducted in March 2020 when stock markets had collapsed due to Covid, and fails to take account of the entirely predictable recovery since then. What’s more, USS predicted that the total value of the fund would stay below £80bn for at least the next 50 years (which would be worse than any similar fund has performed in the past 120 years), whereas today its value is already over £90bn. And don’t just take our word for it, even the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf has written that “the USS is more than properly funded, whatever the regulations may say.” 

But it is the second dispute which really exposes the failing marketised model of higher education which is short-changing staff and students alike. Collectively titled the Four Fights, it targets stagnating pay (university workers have had an 18% pay cut in real terms since 2009), excessive workloads, widespread casualisation, and pay inequality (the gender pay gap in HE is 15.1%, black staff are paid 17% less than white, and people with disabilities 9% less than their able-bodied colleagues).

Workload and casualisation issues in particular stem from the failures of marketisation. Since the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 and the removal of most direct government funding in 2010, UK universities have been increasingly reliant on student fee income. Universities compete for students, but numbers are volatile and unpredictable, so year-to-year income is uncertain (final numbers are often only confirmed several weeks after teaching has started).

Modern university bosses navigate this uncertainty by treating their staff mean and keeping their organisations lean. Staffing costs are kept as low as possible and unpredictable student numbers managed by relying on a precarious reserve army of part-time and hourly paid teachers, mostly current or recent graduate students desperate for the limited career opportunities on offer and money to pay their bills.

These staff members are routinely drafted in at the last minute on short term contracts, generally pitifully low paid (as little as £2,000 or less for a year’s teaching work), and which often fail even to offer enough hours to actually cover the work required (paying just an hour to do all the background reading and planning for a class, for instance).

It’s a lean, gig economy model no different to that of Sports Direct or Amazon, and one which has made higher education one of the most heavily casualised sectors in the UK, with an eye watering two thirds of researchers and half of all teaching staff employed on temporary contracts. In the pandemic it came into its own, with thousands of casual jobs across the sector simply cast aside to quickly cut costs, along with the workers who were relying on them. In many cases people who had been working for and contributing to their institutions for many years.

Predictably, this on-the-fly staffing model often falls short of what’s needed, with existing staff expected to make up the difference through higher workloads. Add to this that student numbers have ballooned in recent years while staff numbers have lagged behind, and it’s little wonder 4 in 5 staff report struggling with unmanageable workloads with 86% having been referred to mental health support as a result.

All this is not just bad for staff but students too. Students are short-changed when staff are drafted in with just weeks or even days to learn the material and develop lesson plans. Gone are the days when teaching staff could hope to remember all their students’ names, let alone their individual learning needs. And of course, it’s not just teaching staff but administrative teams too stretched to quickly process student queries and wellbeing services without capacity to support all those students with significant emotional and mental health issues. This is how the sausage is made in the modern UK university.

For those of us who care about the quality of the educational experience we provide and the working conditions we deliver it in this simply isn’t good enough. That’s why we are demanding a national framework for addressing workload, casualisation and pay inequality. Of course, this will require investment, but the money is there. Fee income alone rose by 28% between 2014 and 2019, yet in the same period spending on staff rose just 10%.

What students and staff need is a break with failing marketisation which incentivises university bosses to spend more on shiny new buildings, dubious management consultancy, and flashy PR to persuade students to walk through the door than on the staff and services that actually support their education once they arrive.

These cracks can only be papered for so long, and the solidarity we have seen from students shows that they increasingly recognise that poor working conditions for staff means poor learning conditions for them. It goes without saying that we don’t want to lose pay and disrupt their education, but we owe it to them and to future students to say enough is enough. Together we can change higher education for the better for all of us.

We were pleased to receive support from the labour movement in the first phase of our action and we look forward to further solidarity as our dispute continues in the new year.

UCU strike action – photo credit: University College Union.

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