- Sophie Siriwardena
Educators Exploited: Why Students Must Support Industrial Action
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Higher education is hectic for students and staff all year round. Certain months are plagued by exams, midterm submission or lab reports – but something different often enters the scene too.
Mentions of ‘strikes’ are flying across campuses and long, wordy emails from chancellors and vice principals fill our inboxes. Industrial Action is back. Why is it taking place? What does it mean to staff and what does it mean for students?
The University and College Union (UCU) represents thousands of staff across the UK. In a time when union memberships elsewhere were declining, UCU membership has steadily increased annually from 2017-2020. Today, the prolific union represents over 130,000 people ranging from postgraduate tutors and librarians, to teachers, researchers, and lecturers.
The pandemic has caused serious disruption to education at all levels. There was uproar about A levels being initially allocated based on an algorithm. University and college students went for months without any face-to-face teaching - and student wellbeing plunged as a result. Despite the rollercoaster ride that students have endured for the last few years, a survey from the end of last year showed that students remain largely supportive of those taking part in the strike action, with only 10% saying they disagreed with it.
Whilst this is positive, there is palpable worry on campuses about what the strikes mean for coursework and attainment. One University of Edinburgh student is afraid that she’ll fail her dissertation. A University of Glasgow student asks if there is a less disruptive time in the semester when the action could alternatively take place – they say it’s detrimental that the action falls during a time when many students have assignments due.
I’ve seen first-hand how quickly students can be tempted to turn against staff when they feel somewhat cheated. Late grades and email responses, or unpredictable timetabling schedules can rub some of us up the wrong way. Of course, such things can be frustrating - particularly for those who are entering into large sums of debt in order to complete their studies.
The tensions arguably make it seem intuitive to reinforce a dichotomy regarding the industrial action— pitting educators and learners against one another. This would not only be a misread of the UCU dispute— it would also ignore who is really to blame for the strikes and the disorder that they bring. As university staff remind us each time, no one wants to be striking, and the decision to do so is not one that is taken lightly.
UCU members need students to show their solidarity, and this will be easier if we understand the reasons for their outrage. What’s all the fuss about?
A press release from UCU this week highlights the main concerns of those taking action. They state that pay in real terms has fallen off a cliff since 2009 with a decrease of about 25% alongside inflation. Other sectors have been facing losses too – nurses and community nurses saw their pay fall by 9.4% between 2010-2021. Both situations are dire, but this reinforces the urgency of the situation for educators.
Employers are not budging though – they have stood firm offering just a 1.5% salary rise, while staff are asking for a £2,500 pay increase for ALL university employees.
Pay is a complex area of contention – inequalities as a result of gender, race and disability are also affecting salaries. UCU reports in its 2021/22 request that the gender pay gap averages at 16% across the UK. The inequalities between pay for Black employees and White employees is around 17%, and the disability pay gap is approximately 9%.
Money is not the only issue either. The security of jobs is also a big concern. Staff are pushing for a strategy that gets rid of zero-hour and precarious contracts. More than 70,000 staff across the country are on what UCU deem to be ‘insecure’ contracts.
Pensions are another block in the road. As students these are something we may try (and try again) to keep out of our minds. Nonetheless, we should be aware of what staff are furious about when we consider the impacts on our studies. A Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) trustee has agreed to meet the demands given by a UCU pensions compromise – now it is up to Universities UK (UUK) to agree to the demands. UUK is made up of the vice chancellors and principals of British universities, and if they refuse to agree to the compromise, they will bulldoze on with a 35% reduction to staff’s secured retirement income.
This is appalling, and the key thing to remember here is that it is UUK standing in the way of resolutions to these disputes.
Financial matters are not even the whole story. UCU’s general secretary Jo Grady says around half of the workforce has noted symptoms of depression and hopes staff will soon be treated with the respect and decency they deserve. She highlights that staff aren’t asking for anything unreasonable.
During my discussions with the UCU Scotland policy and communications officer, I was reminded that those taking part in the action will lose out on significant portions of their wages. Those striking or taking ‘action short of a strike’ (not covering absences, not rescheduling classes, working only within the limits of your contract) will have their pay withheld. The forecasted action will take place over the next three weeks – the loss of wages will be far from insignificant.
For many it is frustrating to have the semester interrupted. But enforcing a student vs staff war when staff are already engaged in conflict with UUK will do nothing to reduce the disruption to education. Cultivating understanding and awareness among students will ensure that we are well informed about the extent and impacts of the industrial action. In turn we can do our best to work despite the unusual conditions.
Picket lines welcome student alliance – learning is our priority, and it’s impossible without our university employees. The return of industrial action is welcome by no one, not least the staff themselves – but the brave revolts are necessary if we wish to provide educators with the dignity and rights they deserve.