“Thousands of students will support university workers throughout the duration of the industrial action, taking part in teach-ins, joining staff on picket lines, and working to organise strike fundraisers.”
By Fraser McGuire and Will Jones
The strikes this November will be the biggest ever University and College Union (UCU) strikes, with more than 70,000 university staff at over 150 higher education institutions taking action in response to attacks on pay, pensions and working conditions.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is also backing the strikes with Chloe Field, the NUS vice president, stating “students stand in solidarity with the 70,000 university staff across the UK who will strike later this month.” Numerous University Guilds and Student Unions are also backing the striking workers and encouraging students to join picket lines and not attend university on strike days.
It’s clear to both staff and students that the university and higher education sector is on its knees. Rampant casualisation has had dramatic negative impacts on the rights of workers, with roughly a third of staff on fixed term contracts, 41 percent paid hourly wages, and over 3000 employees on zero hours contracts nationally. It is therefore no surprise that UCU members overwhelmingly voted yes to strike action in a historic ballot carried out last month, with 81 percent of members voting in favour- giving a clear democratic mandate for industrial action.
By pushing for national action to tackle excessive workloads and unpaid work, both of which have severe detrimental effects on staff mental health and morale, the UCU is fighting to improve both the conditions of staff and the experience of students, who often suffer because of the increased pressure on their lecturers and teaching staff who are overworked.
Furthermore, the issues of mental health difficulties among university staff are undoubtedly being compounded by recent cuts to pensions, which is another front which UCU is campaigning on with the specific goal of pressuring university employers to revoke the cuts and force the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to restore pension benefits to 2021 levels.
The marketisation of higher education has dramatically worsened the financial situation of students, with effects of sky-high tuition fees being greatly exacerbated by the cost-of living crisis through unaffordable rent and massive competition for rapidly depleting housing stock in cities.
While students grapple with rising costs, UCU research shows that 42 percent of staff on various types of casual contracts have had difficulties paying household bills, highlighting the shared struggle that students and university staff are facing. While many students will face some level of disruption during the strike days, there isn’t a practical way for UCU members to protest the unfair pay and precarious working conditions without affecting students.
History has clearly shown that University employers ignore staff protests which don’t cause disruption to the daily running of the University. Despite this, thousands of students across the country are vocally supporting the strikes, as they know that the demands of the UCU will also have positive impacts on their learning conditions.
The higher education sector is rife with institutional pay inequality, with some of the worst gender and ethnicity pay gaps in the UK. In 2020 female university staff earned on average 15.9 percent less than male colleagues, and at the current rate of change the gap won’t close for over 20 years. The pay gap between Black and white staff stands at 17 percent, and the disability pay gap is 9 percent. A core part of the UCU demands is pay equality, which could easily be achieved if the employers and university vice chancellors genuinely wanted to end pay inequality within the sector- the total tuition fee income for universities rose by over a third between 2015 and 2020, while staff say real-terms pay cuts.
Employers clearly have the ability and resources to invest more in staff, despite the value of pay in higher education falling by 17.6 percent relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019. At the same time as relative pay decreases, the proportion of universities money spent on staff has been steadily declining despite the total university generated income hitting over £40 billion in 2021. Part of the reason for the unfair wages is due to major pay inequality within the sector, with university vice chancellors (VCs) pay collectively exceeding £45 million last year. Data shows that at six universities in the UK, vice chancellor salaries are over £500,000, while just under half earn over £300,000, exposing the myth that there isn’t enough money in the sector to improve working conditions, pensions, or reduce pay inequality.
The demands of the UCU will benefit both staff and students in the higher education sector, with many students rallying behind the slogan- “staff working conditions are our learning conditions.” Thousands of students will support university workers throughout the duration of the industrial action, taking part in teach-ins, joining staff on picket lines, and working to organise strike fundraisers. The more students support generated during the strikes, the harder it will be for universities to ignore UCU in negotiations, and the stronger the call for a more fair and equal higher education sector will be.