On 1 December, higher education staff and University and College Union (UCU) members launched their first of three days of strike action against pension cuts, racial, gender and disability pay gaps, low wages, unpaid hours, and excessive workloads. University staff across the UK have taken to picket lines – and social media – to demand that university bosses take action to challenge poor wages and entrenched exploitation and inequality in the higher education sector.
Unjust pensions, pay and conditions
According to the union, “UCU members are taking action over falling pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads”. Since 2009, university staff have seen real terms pay cuts of nearly 20%. And cuts proposed by Universities UK (UUK) will see the average pension drop by around 36% (despite claiming that the proposed cuts would lead to 10% to 18% drop).
The casualisation of work in higher education means that today, nearly 90,000 university staff are employed on insecure contracts. Reflecting the limited rights, protections and security such arrangements provide, University of Bristol researcher Dr Eleanor Johnson shared:
The process of applying for the funding we are told we must secure in order not to lose our jobs is so long that I had to work part time in order to drag out my contract.
— Dr Eleanor Johnson (@EKJohnson11) December 1, 2021
And Dr Eve Hayes said:
I'm [not] striking because this year Liverpool uni made me redundant straight out of maternity leave during a global pandemic then stood by & watched me with my baby as I cleared out my office in their new multi-million pound building.#whyimstriking #UCUstrike #LivUniStrike https://t.co/fGytiI6NxZ
— Dr Eve Hayes (@EHayesdeKalaf) November 29, 2021
Striking staff are also challenging excessive workloads in higher education. According to an Education Support report, excessive workloads and unpaid hours are causing a mental health crisis among higher education workers. The report found that 79% of respondents struggled with an intense, excessive workload. It also found that over half of respondents displayed signs of depression.
Speaking to the entrenched exploitation of higher education workers, University of St Andrews lecturer Roxani Krystalli shared:
Assuming that people in caring professions will just give, give, give because we care maintains and reinforces an unhealthy relationship to work–and to care itself.
Institutions expect–and delegate or outsource–care without providing ecosystems of support. The result is burnout.
— Roxani Krystalli (@rkrystalli) November 30, 2021
University staff are also taking industrial action to challenge unjust pay gaps. As it stands, the pay gap between Black and white higher education staff is currently 17%. The average gender pay gap is 15.1%. And the disability pay gap is at 9%. A UCU survey found that marginalised university staff are disproportionately impacted by excessive workloads and insecure contracts.
Contextualising racial and gender pay gaps in the sector, King’s College’s UCU shared:
Visible skin, invisible gaps at @KingsCollegeLon.
— King's College, London, University & College Union (@KCL_UCU) October 23, 2021
Higher education staff unite
Announcing the first day of industrial action, the UCU tweeted:
🚨UCU members at universities across the UK begin three days of strike action today in defence of pay and pensions and to fight against pay gaps and job insecurity.
— UCU (@ucu) December 1, 2021
Striking staff are demanding the reversal of pension cuts, and a £2.5k rise in pay for all staff. They are also demanding “action to tackle unmanageable workloads, pay inequality and insecure contracts”.
Threatening further industrial action if university bosses fail to meet these demands, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:
If they continue to ignore the modest demands of staff then we will be forced to take further industrial action in the new year, which even more branches will join.
On 1 December, approximately 50,000 staff from 58 higher education institutions took to picket lines nationwide to demand fair pensions, pay and conditions.
Striking staff took to social media to share pictures from picket lines up and down the country. The University of York’s UCU shared:
— UCU Uni of York has a double strike & ASOS mandate (@UcuYork) December 1, 2021
And Leeds Student Staff Solidarity tweeted:
— Leeds Student Staff Solidarity (@SSSLeeds) December 1, 2021
Highlighting that the marketisation of the UK’s higher education system impacts all workers in the sector, UCU posted:
— UCU (@ucu) December 1, 2021
And striking staff at universities including the London School of Economics (LSE) held teach-ins:
Excellent teach-in as part of @LSE_UCU strike against precarious work, pension cuts & pay gaps. @discoursekhala, @Mai_Taha_, @saramsalem & others discuss how precarious labour is gendered & racialised & how Uni workers expected to implement racist gov policies such as prevent pic.twitter.com/th8mT4qqmD
— طيف ندى (@ALKTaif) December 1, 2021
Solidarity with striking higher education workers
An overwhelming number of students have met the industrial action with outpourings of support and solidarity for striking university staff. Indeed, according to the National Union of Students (NUS), 73% of students support industrial action. On 1 December, students took to picket lines across the country to express solidarity with striking higher education workers. NUS president Larissa Kennedy tweeted:
the NUMBER OF STUDENTS out and pissed at uni management ??? yh the movement is doing bits
— Larissa Kennedy 🇧🇧🇯🇲🇻🇨 (@Larissa_Ken) December 1, 2021
Student activists from the Red Square Movement came together to block UUK’s head office in solidarity with striking higher education workers:
This morning we blocked off the entrance to @UniversitiesUK’s offices to kick off the start of strike action across 58 universities this week🔥
RSM is letting uni bosses know that we’re coming for them. We won’t wait around whilst they turn education into a profit making machine pic.twitter.com/47UpVpkOJI
— Red Square Movement 🟥 (@RedSqMovement) December 1, 2021
Students occupied the University of Manchester’s business school to support the ongoing strike. One student posted:
And…. We're back. Occupying you again @OfficialUoM . Oh dear! We thought the Business school was fitting as you'd rather run like a business than pay your @UM_UCU staff fairly and equally! All solidarity with strikers, see you on the pickets tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/FoSgo5faA8
— Izzy Smitheman (@ISmitheman) December 1, 2021
And over 330 Birbeck University students have signed an open letter to senior leadership, stating “we will continue to support staff as they fight for better working conditions – their working conditions are our learning conditions”:
Despite attempts to divide us Birkbeck students stand in solidarity with striking workers.
Today we sent an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor saying NO to overwork, precarious contracts, pay gaps and pension cuts; 330 signed so far – add your name now!https://t.co/uc2djMmQ4d
— Birkbeck Solidarity Campaign (@BBKsolidarityc1) December 1, 2021
Meanwhile, the University of Sussex Students’ Union has organised a march and rally in solidarity with local striking staff:
📣 MARCH & RALLY TODAY!
March in solidarity with Sussex UCU, Brighton UCU and UNISON Brighton.
Meet other marchers at Falmer Picket Line (by the crossing) at 11am to head down to Brighton campus together on the bus before marching to The Level, Brighton.#ussu #sussexstudent pic.twitter.com/Mvv7skwhZW
— ussu (@USSU) December 2, 2021
Join the movement
The strike action is due to continue until Friday 3 December. In the meantime, UCU is urging supporters to join their local picket line to support striking higher education staff. The union has shared a list of all institutions taking part in the industrial action. UCU is leading a march and rally in London on 3 December. The union is encouraging anyone who can’t make it to the picket lines to express solidarity on social media, and to donate to UCU’s strike fund. It is vital that we – particularly those of us who are students – unite in solidarity with striking university staff and against the marketisation of higher education.
Featured image via Twitter Screengrab – @UM_UCU
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