By Freya Buxton

From the first to the third of December, university students across the UK will experience disrupted teaching, as University and Colleges Union (UCU) branches in 58 institutions go on strike as part of the union’s battles with universities over working conditions.

Students like me will remember the 2019/2020 strikes, called over pensions, pay and working conditions when the UCU disputed the rise in pension contributions its members had to pay, from 8-9.6%. It argued that universities should pay the increase to avoid lecturers being on average £240,000 worse off in their retirement. These strikes also raised the alarm about a decade of real-terms pay cuts, a gender pay gap of 15% across the sector, and a significant increase in the use of exploitative, casualised contracts for teaching staff.

Two years later, it seems little has changed. The Union states that ‘Staff pay has fallen by 20% after twelve years of below inflation pay offers; one third of academic staff are on insecure contracts; the gender pay gap sits at 15% and the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that, of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were Black; staff are also experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression.’

Addressing this seeming lack of change since the last round of strikes, a member of the UEA UCU committee told The Norwich Radical that ‘it’s always hard to assess the impact of national industrial action at a local level, especially when the disputes are still live. […] It would be too harsh to say that the results of the [2019/20] action were erased by how the sector reacted to Covid-19. The disputes were not resolved and have been live throughout the pandemic.[…] One thing I have seen is that the pandemic and its mishandling by institutions and government has really drained staff of capacity.’

The ‘Four Fights’ campaign addresses for key ways that university staff working conditions have been attacked by employers. Credit: UCU.

Two examples of undoubtedly questionable behaviour from my own university will, I hope, illustrate the ironies and inequalities within university management practice. In February last year, we were incensed to see the University of Edinburgh’s Vice Chancellor, Peter Mathieson, return to a full salary despite cuts due to the pandemic. In April of 2020, the university tightened its coffers after facing a drop in income around £70-150million, and in the spirit of things Mathieson took a pay cut for six months. However, at the end of that short period his salary returned to its pre-pandemic level of approximately £340,000, all while the local UCU branch were involved in negotiations over whether university staff should accept a real-terms pay cut.

In institutions across the country, the pandemic has only worsened the pressures on staff. As our contact at UEA put it, ‘University staff, like all of us, are being exhausted by the challenges of the pandemic. There are a host of local changes at UEA, such as timetabling, that have tapped out supplies of staff good-will. The pandemic coupled with these local changes have had the effects of amplifying the pain and exhaustion our membership is feeling.’

Yet despite universities’ questionable financial decisions, there is still a political element to supporting staff through changing financial priorities, both on the institutional and national levels. ‘The Government needs to do more to support the [university] sector and fund an effective, free, education system. Staff need to be the priority of institutional spending. Institutions like UEA need to take significant attitudinal steps to address the marginalisation of elements of our staff and student community. They need to undertake the difficult procedural work of analysing the pay gaps around race, ethnicity, gender and disability and address them. Institutions like UEA need to commit to eliminating the blight of casualisation and give clear routes to permanent employment to staff. They need to bring through policies to effectively account and distribute workload in order to avoid a culture of overwork that is crippling staff physically, emotionally and psychologically.’

the system that exists is unsustainable and unsupportive for many university staff

Evidence that universities are not prioritising addressing staff issues is easy to find. The UCU have recently criticised the University of Edinburgh, for example, for advertising teaching contracts which violate the 2019 University and UCU Joint Statement. The university advertised three full-time teaching fellowships for a period of eight months in the Linguistics and English Language Department, despite an agreement in the Joint Statement that “By the start of academic year 2020/21 teaching fellowship contracts will be offered for no less than one year’s duration”.

When universities will not even offer staff the respect of complying with formal agreements, staff are right to be frustrated and angry. Clearly, university staff are not taking their strike action lightly. Many lecturers I have spoken to or heard from second-hand have said the same thing: they do not want to strike, particularly after the year of disrupted teaching students have experienced. But the system that exists is unsustainable and unsupportive for many university staff, and universities largely appear to be ignoring this. Union branches have tried every other avenue available to them; now the employers leave them no choice but to take drastic action.

This then raises the question, how do we approach the strikes as students? The short answer: support them. As the union puts it, staff working conditions are our learning conditions. Mistreatment of staff by universities has negative effects on all of us, and we should stand in solidarity. However, there are complications for many students that can make it difficult to offer the support we might want to.

It’s not just teaching staff that are affected by poor contracts and conditions – many services staff such as librarians are also striking. Credit: UCU via twitter.

While tutorials and lectures may be cancelled during strike action, there remains the question of university buildings and study spaces. During strike action of any kind, members of the institution the action is being taken against are encouraged not to cross the picket lines, i.e. not to enter the employer’s facilities and enable the continuation of business as usual. However, the pandemic brought into stark focus the difficulty of students studying away from university spaces. For example, the Pause or Pay Campaign was launched in response to art students being unable to access studios and specialist materials. Moreover, as term draws to a close, we are in the midst of deadline season, and some students will have to attend in-person assessments, or may require IT facilities which are more readily accessible on campus.

An information for students page on the University of Edinburgh’s website warns that ‘if you choose not to cross a picket line you may miss classes or other activities that are taking place and (if attendance is taken) you will be marked as absent. No alternative teaching or assessments will be offered in these circumstances.’ Moreover, we have been told that ‘you should attend all teaching and assessment activity that does take place.’ This is a tactic to minimise disruption and reduce student-staff solidarity, and while in most cases universities will not have grounds to discipline students for non-attendance due to strike action, this pressure falls differently on students in different circumstances.

I spoke to one Edinburgh student whose ability to remain at university requires her attendance at a quota of classes to maintain her visa. She stated that ‘as an international student, the university emailed us at the start of term that missing more than three tutorials will result in an expulsion of our visas. I’ve already called in sick a few times this term, so even though I completely see where the university lecturers are coming from, I’m not really in the position to boycott the university.’

Ultimately, the most important thing is to show solidarity with participating staff by communicating with them and indicating your support

The choice of whether or not to cross picket lines is a personal one for every student, and staff respect this. If you attended university buildings on the first day of strike action yesterday, you were likely wished a good morning by friendly striking staff, offering information on the dispute in placard, chant and leaflet form. And there are alternative ways of supporting the strike, as our UEA contact made clear: ‘there are a plethora of ways in which students can support industrial action […] The most effective is showing solidarity with participating staff. Showing members that student support exists is really important as our membership cares deeply about our students.’

Stop and talk to staff on picket lines and let them know you support them. Wear a badge or sticker around campus that announces your support for the strike. Bring teas and coffees and snacks (ideally bought at non-university outlets such as SU facilities) to help keep staff warm in the cold. Solidarity takes many forms, and anything you do will help keep up staff morale.

Striking staff will also often offer ‘teach-outs’ – unofficial classes held away from university facilities. These are a great opportunity to participate in strike action while learning a thing or two along the way. You can also work with your SU to formally support the strikes by passing policy, or by opening SU buildings to staff as a place to warm up after they leave the picket. Note that if your SU supports the strike, their buildings will usually be considered ‘neutral ground’, and using IT and other facilities there is not considered crossing the picket line.

Navigating strikes as a student can be tricky, but the advice I’ve heard from staff and union reps at multiple universities shows that there are many ways you can support staff, even if you cannot boycott classes or buildings for any reason. Ultimately, the most important thing is to show solidarity with participating staff by communicating with them and indicating your support. After all, it is these staff – teaching staff, dissertation advisors, cleaners, lab assistants, library staff – who make our university experience what it is. While this round of strikes may only last three days, if universities do not make significant commitments to improve conditions the action is likely to continue beyond the Christmas period. Students need to stand with our lecturers as the battle for fairer working conditions persists – for as long as it takes.

Featured image credit: UCU Left via twitter

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