The University Strikes Explained

By Sophie Fennelly


We all know that members of the UCU (University and College Union) will be striking over the next few weeks, but many people do not understand the intricacies of these strikes. I spoke with a UCU representative to get a greater understanding. Here is your guide to understanding the strikes:

What are the strikes about?

The issues that the UCU are striking over are divided into two different disputes:

Pensions

The Four Fights: Pay devaluation, pay inequality, casualisation and rising workloads


What is the problem with pensions?

The pension dispute is something that only effects the older universities (pre-1992) as the ex-polytechnic universities do not have the same pension schemes for their employees as the older ones. The dispute started two years ago when universities wanted to radically change the pensions, and this disagreement has been ongoing since then. This is what prompted the 2018 strikes which lead to some progress in that the employers and the Pension Trustees agreed to have a new committee to consider the matter, and come to some new recommendations. However, the recommendations that were revealed in 2019 do not show satisfactory progress. Since Christmas, the UCU and the Universities have been in general agreement over everything apart from the Pensions Trust. Unfortunately, the only way that members of the UCU as employees of the university can put pressure on the Pensions Trust is by putting pressure on their employers by striking. This is with the hope that applying pressure, the Pensions Trust will be pushed up the university’s agenda. The fundamental fight about pensions is not so much concerned with those who will soon be looking to receive their pension; it is more focused on the hope that young people who graduate and then work in universities will start their careers with a good pension deal. The UCU want to avoid a future where these young people’s pensions are sacrificed in order to finance the pensions of the older generations.


What are the Four Fights?

These are primarily concerned with pay and working conditions such as casualisation and workload levels. The UCU prefer to try and tackle all four of these disputes together, and if the university is unable to satisfy one of the disputes, such as pay devaluation. The union will hopefully be able to make movement on the other disputes which are less costly to the universities, but that the UCU still feel equally strongly about. The issue of pay devaluation has been slowly building up over the course of 15 years as their pay has been falling in real terms (i.e. their pay has risen slower than inflation has). However, many members of the UCU would not be willing to undertake industrial action just about pay as they care about their students too much and therefore, would be willing to have diminishing pay so that student education is not disrupted.


Members are more frustrated by casualisation and inequality within the workplace. Over the past 7 years the UCU, as a union, has become increasingly concerned about precarious staff (i.e. staff who do not have permanent contracts). This is partly because the proportion of precariously employed people has increased in universities, and in the country as a whole. This has also been prompted by activists in the union, including some in Leeds, who have been fighting through the UCU’s internal systems of democracy so that they can do more to protect its most precarious staff. After the November/December 2019 strikes employers on a national level decided to issue a statement of expectations on how people should or should not be employed on short term contracts; as well as doing some research and writing a report. The UCU feel that this is a promising step, but it is not concrete, and it is easy to imagine that this will not change day-to-day life; as many are still on hourly-paid or short-term contracts. The UCU believe that the only way to make more progress on this issue is by putting pressure on their employers through a strike.


Workload is harder issue to grapple with as academics are professionals who manage their own time. But nonetheless, there is a growing amount of mental health problems among staff which appear to be connected with stress. Many academics feel as if they are being asked to do more with less time. As a sector, workload needs to be managed better, especially for precarious staff who are quite often, not being paid for their work. For example, an hourly-paid academic may be paid for an hour in the classroom and three hours preparation. But if they are teaching a novel like ‘Great Expectations’, three hours is not enough to read it alongside preparing a lecture on it. A significant amount of university teaching is only possible as a result of unpaid labour.


How can these problems be fixed?

Workload is the most difficult dispute to resolve. At Leeds, staff as a whole would appreciate a more central handling of workload. Currently it is handled separately by each school, which is rational to some extent as each discipline varies. However, there is not the right leadership in place for heads of school to stand up for realistic expectations of their staff. Hopefully, this kind of effort could be carried out on a national level. However, casualisation and pay equality are the disputes that the UCU care about most, and the UCU expects that during the strikes they will be offered a deal by universities. For the UCU, if this deal has a strong emphasis on dealing with issues surrounding pay equality and casualisation it is likely it will be accepted.


What kind of contact do you have with the Vice Chancellor in order to remedy these issues?

Some academics will never see the Vice Chancellor, but as a UCU representative you will see him moderately-often through meetings. Naturally, there is a fundamental disagreement between the UCU and the Vice Chancellor as he does not like people going on strike. However, there is a strong feeling that he cares about the university as a public institution and that he cares about students’ voices; even if this does not mean that he always follows student suggestions or agrees with his staff members.


What are the best ways for students to show their support for the strikes?

Before maintenance grants were removed, many unions would advocate for students striking alongside lecturers on the picket line. But that is no longer realistic, even though a harder strike leads to issues being dealt with sooner because they understand that students are concerned about debt and want to get on with their education. Striking members of staff appreciate friendliness and support from the student body when they cross the picket lines. There are also teach-outs being held at the Quaker meeting house on Woodhouse lane. These are discussion groups that cover the different research topics of the academics as they do not want students to miss out on the ability to have an education. These give students the opportunity for intellectual journeys that may not be directly related to their studies but may be relevant in one way or another.


How can students help put pressure on the university?

The best way to do this is by emailing the Vice-Chancellor, Alan Langlands, and explaining that although, you are frustrated that your contact hours have been cancelled. You understand why staff are striking and that you would like him to use his voice in employer’s organisations to improve situations regarding the four fights. He tends to prefer personal messages and it would be useful to show that as a student, you understand how the issues that the UCU are fighting for will benefit you, either because you will graduate and work in a university. Or, if you want to work in a different sector, you know that by keeping standards up in one sector it helps to keep them up across all sectors. It can be difficult for him, and many others to understand young people’s perspectives on issues, such as pensions, when the housing crisis may seem like a more pressing issue; expressing your worries about the economy we are going into would be really helpful. You can email a.langlands@leeds.ac.uk.


What advice would you give to students that are sympathetic but are being inconvenienced as a result of the strikes, especially third years?

Academics encourage students to help each other and to make the most of their resources, such as libraries, as bright, young individuals. It is beneficial to meet during your normal seminar time with other students and having student-led discussions as the rooms will remain booked. Academics recognise that it is not the same as having a professional in the room, but third years especially, have a strong understanding of their subjects, so it is beneficial to work in solidarity and continue to support each other. Regarding final-year projects or dissertations, on the whole, academics will prioritise those who need the most support on non-strike days so students should hopefully be well-supported on those days and after the strikes.


Overall, the UCU strikes are addressing two different disputes: employee’s pensions, and the four fights concerning pay and working conditions. If you would like to voice your support for the strikes please email the Vice Chancellor, Sir Alan Langlands, with a personal message to a.langlands@leeds.ac.uk.


Image credit: https://cpd.web.ucu.org.uk/