Standing in Solidarity – Why We Should Support the UCU Strikes

Emma Bentley - Guest Writer

On 25th November, many UK universities started striking over disputes about pensions, pay and conditions. Striking as a form of direct action has a long history; from responses to the conditions of workers in the Industrial Revolution, to the National Union of Mineworkers’ strike between 1984 - 1985 and the more recent UCU (University and College Union) strikes in 2018, it is a means of causing disruption to pressure governments and employers.

This current round of strikes sees 43 universities striking over pensions, pay and conditions, and a further 13 over just pay and conditions. Many claim that disruption and the subsequent impact on students make the strikes irresponsible and selfish, especially as UK and EU students pay up to £9250 annually as tuition fees. However, as universities increasingly resemble neo-liberal corporations lusting after profit with little care for the wellbeing of both students and staff, these strikes are entirely necessary.

According to the UCU, pay has been cut by 20% in real terms since 2009 (that is a 10.5% decrease against the UK average). This occurred alongside a demand for staff to work harder and for more hours. Casual contracts without proper job security are common, and many staff are paid by the hour with a significant amount of unpaid overtime. Furthermore, the UCU demands that the gender and ethnic pay gap be recognised and closed.

Alongside this, universities are increasingly functioning more like businesses than educational institutions. The UCU notes that UK universities recorded a surplus of £2.27 billion in 2017/16, up from £1.11 billion in 2011/12. Yet this rise in surplus profit does not correspond with wages paid to staff. Tuition fees from students do not go straight to lecturers; rather, universities profit off of their students whilst simultaneously pay staff less than the product of their labour. Many staff, especially early career academics, have to take on multiple contracts whilst head staff and management receive staggeringly large salaries (KCL’s Principal, Ed Byrne, reportedly earnt £350,000 in 2017). This happens at the same time as attempts to enroll more and more students, meaning that staff face increasing pressure to work longer hours to cater to the needs of all students. Of course some academics have secure, tenured positions with high salaries, yet this is not the case for the many people employed by universities.

Education is being commodified, something sold to students, and this shifts the focus from learning, research and knowledge to output and profit. Universities have never not been elitist, but high tuition fees alongside insubstantial pay and businesslike strategies, arguably inevitabilities of capitalism, are steps in the wrong direction.

Whilst strikes impact the education of students in the short term, staff cannot be expected to teach or research to the best of their abilities when they are overworked and under increasing pressure. That doesn’t mean that we should frame the argument purley around making academic staff more productive workers, forgetting that they are people with personal and family lives who deserve to be compensated properly for their labour, not viewed as nothing more than the surplus profit generated from it. They should be paid properly for all of their work (both teaching and research), and not have to sacrifice certain aspects of their job to meet university targets and demands. Overworking can also impact the physical and mental health of staff, and prioritising productivity above anything else embodies capitalistic, neo-liberal ideas of productivity as paramount.

Furthermore, the increasing precarity of academic jobs makes it harder for working class students to pursue careers in academia. The cost of higher education already creates a breeding ground for elitism in universities, but the instability of early career academic positions will only further such disparities. Many UK universities were created with the purpose of educating the wealthy and enabling them to accumulate more wealth, and the disproportionate amount of rich, privately educated students, and in turn lecturers, does little to challenge the status quo. Furthermore, the UCU report also notes a 20% pay gap between men and women, and highlights that, in comparison to White-UK men, Black non-UK men, Black UK women, and Black non-UK women suffer the most significant pay penalties.

Responses to pay disparities often claim that it’s simply because certain groups are more prevalent in higher paying roles, or somehow have a natural desire to pursue certain positions. Any claim that people are naturally predisposed to desire or perform better in higher paying positions on account of ethnicity or gender is deeply racist and sexist, and one must instead ask why certain positions are therefore easier for some to obtain than others. A report from the Equality on Human Rights Commission stated that over half of staff who responded to them said that they had been ignored or excluded because of their race, and 3 in 20 staff said that their race caused them to leave their jobs. Institutional racism embedded within higher education contributes to pay disparities, and universities need to do more to acknowledge this.

With these conditions in mind, it is wrong to blame lecturers for the disruption caused by striking when universities themselves care more about profit than the treatment of their staff and students. They are arguably an inevitability of the corporatisation of higher education, where more profit is produced when wages are lower and when less secure full time staff are employed. Lenin argued that, under capitalism, wages are determined by arguments between workers and employers, and only by joint action can employees with less power obtain higher wages; strikes arise from the nature of capitalist society. Obviously not all staff voted in favour of the strike, and this is not to claim that all university staff are working class, but rather that striking is a result of employers prioritising profit over their employees.

Staff and students must stand in solidarity with each other to demand a change in conditions. It would be absurd to claim that universities aren’t a product of and a part of maintaining cultural hegemony, and reforming them from within an elitist, capitalist society will not completely remove classism, racism and sexism from higher education. Strikes alone are not enough. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s important that staff are paid properly and unstable casual contracts aren’t common.

By refusing to cross the picket line, you are recognising that it is wrong to under-pay and over-work staff in an increasingly insecure environment. Claims that striking staff are selfish suggest that people should passively accept whatever wages and conditions universities provide. Disruption forces universities to acknowledge the demands of staff and, if the strikes succeed, staff will be better equipped to research and teach, have secure pensions, and not be underpaid or overworked. It won’t entirely undo the commodification of education, but the rights of staff certainly should not be ignored.


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