News & Analysis  •  Workplace, Trade Unions, Strikes

All out for the UCU strike

08 December 2021
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By Dara O’Cogaidhin

Tens of thousands of lecturers and other academic staff, organised by the University and College Union (UCU), staged a mass walkout at 58 universities on 1-3 December in a dispute over pensions, pay, workload, discrimination and casualisation. Students turned out in freezing conditions to support their staff on picket lines up and down the country.

The present wave of strikes involves two inter-related disputes. The battle over pensions continues with employers demanding cuts that would amount to 41% for a scheme member earning around £39,000 – a typical lecturer’s salary. In a last ditch attempt to avert strike action, Universities UK (UUK) circulated inaccurate claims to university senior figures, and in turn to staff, that the cuts would amount to ‘only’ 10-18%.

Four fights

The other dispute is over the issues of the Four Fights – pay, equalities, casualisation and workload. These are the issues that press most severely on young, low-paid and casual staff. Hourly-paid and short-term contracts are endemic across the higher education sector, affecting almost 90,000 academic and academic-related staff.

The most recently published vice-chancellor salaries show university bosses earn around £278,000 on average. This is almost ten times more than entry-level professional staff. Pay has fallen 20% in real terms since 2009, while staff battle unmanageable and unsustainable workloads. A recent Education Support report revealed that over half of those surveyed are showing signs of work-related stress.

The introduction of top-up fees in 2006 and the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 per year in 2010 (the highest of any public universities in the world) significantly increased cash flow for Britain’s universities, but teaching and research conditions have worsened. Universities went on spending sprees using multi-million pound private finance agreements, expanding campuses upwards and outwards. The sector’s debt trebled to £12 billion from 2010 to 2020. 

A decade of marketisation in higher education has led to a funding disaster with predictable results: recruitment freezes and cuts to graduate teaching jobs, with more restructures and redundancies on the horizon. Many precarious workers – cheaper to hire and fire – will not have their contracts renewed.

At Goldsmiths University, 52 administrative and teaching jobs are at risk in order to satisfy terms for a loan that the university took from Lloyds Bank and NatWest. Goldsmiths UCU responded by voting to strike and launching three weeks of industrial action. Unless marketisation can be resisted at a national level, private banks dictating terms to public universities will become more common.

Unite to win

Student-staff solidarity has emerged as an important axis during the dispute. Students at Sheffield University occupied a campus building in support of the UCU strike and in protest at the closure of their archaeology department. Manchester University students, many of whom were involved in the rent strikes last year, occupied the Samuel Alexander building on campus.

A student occupier stated: ‘Staff working conditions are our conditions… the same management that exploit students exploit staff and only together can we bring serious radical change to this corrupt institution.’

UCU branches that did not cross the threshold for industrial action in the last vote are set to reballot on 6 December and will be buoyed by the support for the current wave of strikes. A huge turnout when reballoting begins will prepare the basis for an escalation of strike action. Branches currently involved in the dispute will keep pressure on senior management by undertaking action short of a strike (ASOS).

Contrary to UCU General Secretary Jo Grady’s initial advice, this should include not rescheduling lectures missed, as well as a marking and assessment boycott. Discontent over pay and conditions among Unison and Unite members in higher education also opens the door for coordinated action in the new year.

The attempted sell-out of the 2018 dispute will be at the back of many UCU activists’ minds. This highlights the need for rank and file control. Strike committees at a local and national level will be necessary to keep this dispute on track and to veto any return to work. Immediate action is also required to end the devastating experiment in marketisation.

University workers and students must fight for a completely different vision of higher education – not as a private benefit, but as a public good in a fully-funded, democratised education system. Another university is possible!

Photo credit: Steve Eason

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