Between the 1st and 3rd of December, 58 universities across the country faced industrial action by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). 33 institutions went on strike over the “four fights” (Pay, Equality, Workload and Casualisation) and a dispute over pensions, while others went on strike for either one of the issues.
Much of the media have adopted the typical narrative of this being a student against staff issue. However, this is a narrative that must be challenged.
The strikes do cause disruption and may cause some inconvenience, but that is the point. Industrial action is not supposed to be convenient. Staff do not take such decisions lightly. Strikes are always a last resort when all other options have been exhausted. They are aware of the disruption that may be caused, but they also recognise that the purpose of the strikes is to create better conditions for all.
By withdrawing their labour, they are able to show university management that their work is essential, thus demonstrating the value of the education that they provide.
With this, it is important that students stand by staff throughout the dispute. Some may be disgruntled at this idea, but it is important to recognise that the working conditions of staff are student learning conditions. When staff face injustices, then students also face consequences, such as reduced contact hours. The “four fights” in particular are in the interests of students as well as staff.
These include: tackling unfair pay, pay gaps, high workloads and unfair contracts. When staff are faced with these issues, it can cause them anguish. High workloads can lead to them having less time to spend with students, or not having enough time to give more in-depth feedback to work. Unfair contracts can lead to job insecurity, which can cause concern over whether or not a member of staff may be able to pay their bills. Unfair pay and pay gaps (including gender, race and disability pay gaps) can deter people from pursuing an academic career, or lead to some leaving the profession. This in turn may lead to a less diverse academic sector.
On the pensions dispute, the UCU has estimated that staff are likely to face a 35% cut to their pensions, which will create insecurity and damage living standards in retirement.
The underlying cause of such issues is the marketisation of higher education, which leads to students being treated as consumers and education being treated as a commodity, rather than a right. Marketisation has led to students being burdened with high tuition fees and high rents, while staff are overworked, underpaid and undervalued. The demands of the UCU aim to tackle these issues and to create a more just and equal university environment for all.
Some may question whether students have been convinced that the strikes are also in their interest. However, these doubts can be addressed by recent evidence that shows a significant majority of students support the strikes. For example, the National Union of Students (NUS), in a recent survey, found that 73% of students supported the strikes, with only 9% opposing.
The president of the NUS, Larissa Kennedy, was right to argue that “staff and students’ conditions are intertwined”. In addition to this, many student unions across various university campuses have issued statements of support.
Students should be angry, but they should not be angry at staff who are facing cuts to their pensions and unfair pay while being faced with unbearably high workloads and while being on contracts that do not provide job security. Instead, students should direct their anger towards the universities management, vice-chancellors, and Universities UK (UUK) which are facilitating marketisation which leads to these conditions.
It is the responsibility of employers and UUK to meet the needs of staff. The UCU’s demands are not unreasonable. They are justified in that they aim to create a better working environment for staff and better learning conditions for students. Staff do not want to take the last resort of industrial action, but employers have left them with no choice.
If strikes occur next year, which is very likely, then it is right for students to stand in solidarity with staff. To restate a previous point, staff working conditions are student learning conditions.