The 14-days strike announced by the University and College Union (UCU) marks the third wave of industrial action taken by frustrated academic and support staff from 74 UK universities. On top of the “four fights” campaign – demands for better pay, reasonable workload, wage equality and limits to casualisation (the transformation of a workforce from one based on permanent contracts to short-term contracts) – higher education workers are also on strike against the recent changes made to the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension scheme, which would leave staff £240k worse off.
Why is this significant?
This arrives just as research reveals a significant surge in university staff seeking mental health services in the UK. Some of the reasons cited were the struggle to cope with excessive workload and the stress from the insecurity of fixed-term contracts.
As American literature lecturer Monica Pearl claims, “It’s against our ethos as teachers. We want to teach – but we’re broken by the work conditions before us.”
It is estimated that nearly 1.2 million students will be affected through lost tutorials and lectures. However, support from students has remained “solid”, with most joining the staff sipping cups of “solidaritea” in the cold weather.
“We know if we do not stand in solidarity with our educators today, it is our education that will be in peril tomorrow. We stand with staff because their fight is our fight,” asserts Claire Sosienski, the vice president of the National Union of Students.
What is the reason behind this deadlock?
The root of these strikes can be traced back to the government’s decision to remove the cap on university student quotas in 2015. Back then, many educators had already raised concerns about declining quality of education should the increased funding required to support additional students be derived from the “already very stretched budget for research and higher education”.
However, it seems that their concerns were left unheeded, with the consequences visible today. Universities have repeatedly insisted that they cannot afford to increase wages as they are already running deficits. Even the former Special Advisor to Minister for Universities Nick Hillman had admitted that “the policy was announced without much thought being given to a number of tricky issues, particularly on funding.”
With Brexit concerns and a negative financial outlook for universities, it remains to be seen whether calls to reform the UK’s higher education sector would be successful.