Last week’s strike by staff in 58 universities across the UK has once again brought into focus the problems of marketisation in higher education. Among those walking out are lecturers and other staff such as librarians and administrators.
Workers in the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelming for strike action, and action short of a strike, in two separate ballots in November. One ballot was over the cuts to staff pensions; the other over pay and working conditions.
Staff pay in the sector has fallen by 20% after twelve years of below inflation pay offers, At the same time, one third of academic staff are on insecure contracts, even as workloads rise to unsafe levels. This has brough with it growing work-related stress, with half of staff showing probable signs of depression. On top of this is the inequality on campus, with glaring disparities of pay experienced by women and black colleagues. Recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures revealed that of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were black.
The alarming inequities of university life are compounded by the paydays enjoyed by university senior managers. A recent report from the Office of Students (OoS) revealed that vice chancellors have salaries and perks branded ‘immoral” and “unsustainable” by UCU.
VCs across England are taking home as much as £584k a year and £100k for their ‘accommodation costs’, and on average VCs now enjoying a total remuneration of £269k per year.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady says, “Vice-chancellors like to claim they are paid these astronomical sums because they are uniquely talented and influential, but the reality is that they oversee a sector in which a demoralised staff are forced to take industrial action on an almost yearly basis. These so-called leaders need to wake up and address the litany of failures gripping the sector.”
In Belfast, Derry, Coleraine and Jordanstown, workers in the Queen’s University and Ulster walked out in support of the strikes on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd December and are set for action short of strike before further anticipated walk outs in the new year.
The strikes have received tremendous support from other trade unions including the National Union of Students. NUS national president Larissa Kennedy said: ‘Students have a rich history of standing shoulder to shoulder with university staff, who have seen their pensions, pay and conditions slashed in recent years. With vice chancellors’ average total pay packets rising to £269,000 per year, it’s clear employers can afford to resolve their dispute with UCU over staff pay, which has fallen by an average of 20% in real terms since 2009. Staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions, and we mustn’t forget many postgraduate students on casualised teaching contracts will be striking. The onus for minimising disruption for students lies with university bosses: they must come back to the table to address the clear issues in how higher education is currently run.’
In a referendum students at Queen’s University voted overwhelmingly to back the UCU strike. Meanwhile, Ulster University Students Union (UUSU) have refused to support the union action and been widely criticised for it, although some student reps have joined the picket lines.
The UCU at Ulster University responded to UUSU by expressing their “deep sense of disappointment and bewilderment” at the decision not to support the strike. The branch has pointed to how UUSU are effectively withholding support from their own members, since students who are PhD researchers often carry out work teaching on campus and may also members of UCU.
In a statement UCU Ulster has highlighted that the struggle for better pay and working conditions is not confined to campus but resonates with those working in other sectors; sectors that students will be seeking work in after graduation. UCU Ulster says, “The issues that we are in dispute with employers over are central to the future wellbeing and prospects of student workers and graduates, as well as their current learning conditions. The concept of casual and insecure work has become normalised in higher education and most other employment sectors. The effects of this will be devastating on future graduates and Students’ Unions need to be shoulder to shoulder with us to do all in our collective power to stand against the destruction of dignity that this entails.”