Sixty universities across the UK are taking part in the current UCU strike action over pay, pensions, and poor working conditions. On day 4 of the 8-day strike, six striking historians give us the view from picket lines across the country.
Royal Holloway, University of London
Emily Manktelow – Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Global History
One of the nice things about Royal Holloway’s big Founder’s Building clock is that you can arrive “on the stroke” of things. As such, I arrived on the stroke of 8am Monday morning to join the picket lines of the Egham Campus. The rain was both mizzling and persistent, but I like to think the picket I was on was buoyed by the presence of my dog Teddy, one of the many #dogsonpicketlines up and down the country that morning. Not being a fan of the rain, his big brown eyes really got across the pathos of inequality, low pay and casualisation. Standing at the pedestrian crossing gate opposite student halls, we got a lot of support from students, some encouraging car honks and a round of applause from a passing nurse. We also got shouted at by a man leaning out of his van at the traffic lights. “Get a f***ing education”, he yelled with somewhat pleasing irony. I guess he could have been saying “Give a f***ing education’, but that seems unlikely.
On the picket line the main talk was of equality: fair pay and casualisation were definitely the issues that resonated most with staff. Whereas during the last strikes the focus was very-much on the pension cuts, this time around there was a certain amount of discomfort with our ‘USS Pension Strike’ signs. This discomfort resonates more widely with the dominance on social media of the second part of the industrial action ballot: pay and working conditions. While RHUL is proud of its roots in female education – indeed, the sports teams’ colours are the suffragette colours and our new library is in the brand-new Emily Wilding Davison building – we have the 7th worst gender pay gap in the sector (24.9%). Our Surrey campus, meanwhile, is much too white for its proximity to Hounslow, Acton and Staines. As staff members and departments these are issues we have been trying to face with student-led BAME initiatives and projects to diversify our curriculum, but both the national and local picture remain alarming at best, and indicting at worst. The national gender pay gap is 15% (2018) while the ethnic minority pay gap in Russell Group institutions is an astonishing 26% (2018). Closer to home for we historians the Royal Historical Society’s ‘Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report’ found that only 11% of history students nationwide are from BAME backgrounds and that 96.1% of university historians are white.
Casualisation, meanwhile, is also stark. RHUL relies upon 62% casualised labour. Nationally the figure stands at 68% with many institutions even higher. At last year’s Modern British Studies Conference forum on early career casualisation I was struck not only by the devastating figures, but even more so by the feeling of ECRs on the panel that their work wasn’t valued: that their teaching was underpaid and unstable, and even more so that their research was considered pointless or trivial. This really felt like a punch in the gut, and in a stupidly tone-deaf and rambling question I prattled on about imposter syndrome without really interacting with the structural issues that these academics were so eloquently describing. Yes, we all have moments of feeling that we don’t belong. These young colleagues were being both told and shown that they didn’t by university structures and leaderships that relied upon their work at the same time as marginalising their existence. This is deeply shameful, and absolutely worth striking for.
I don’t know if these issues have got worse since the last strikes, but I do know that their importance has magnified. Colleagues and I have been trying to work out why that is. Our suggestions are undoubtedly only part of the wider picture, but tended to circle around greater visibility through social media and more attention to mental health issues in academia (particularly after the tragic death of Dr Malcolm Anderson at Cardiff University earlier this year). Moreover, for me at least, the last round of strikes burnt up my goodwill towards universities as institutions. I love my job, and I am extremely fortunate to be one of the lucky ones in a permanent position. I joined RHUL in August 2018 and have been extremely happy there so far, with great colleagues, a vibrant department, and enthusiastic and engaged students. But in 2018 university leaderships across the country certainly demonstrated that we are only numbers on a spreadsheet in the corridors of power. Our goodwill is lost in a vacuum of number-crunching, pound signs and recruitment figures.
Universities rely on our commitment to research and teaching in order to exploit us. They rely on our gratitude for having a job to overwork us. They rely on our commitment to get the job done to cut our pay by nearly 20% in real terms since 2009. They rely on casualised staff who are chronically underpaid, live in a world of instability and insecurity every day, and internalise the sector’s exploitation as a narrative of insufficiency. The money is there: for pensions, for fractional and permanent contracts, for redressing the pay gaps and investing in eradicating student attainment gaps. We don’t need new halls charging exorbitant rent to already over-squeezed students. We don’t need recruitment targets, TEFs, REFs and KEFs. We need equality, security, fair workloads and fair pay. Is that so much to ask?
University of Cambridge
George Morris – PhD Student in History
As in the last strike, the solidarity shown by undergraduate students, and the presence of postgrads on the picket lines, has been of huge value, not just in boosting numbers and morale – and providing sustenance in the form of tea and cake – but in showing the strength of feeling, and the deep care and support, on which the university runs. The practical solidarity shown between staff and students (and, here in Cambridge, a visiting Billy Bragg) is an expression of more everyday solidarities, which function despite the pressure of poor working conditions. If it seems like the strike offers an alternative idea of the university, it is because of this; people gathering, meeting, and talking in ways we don’t have time to otherwise.
At many universities, students have been misleadingly told that they aren’t allowed to join the picket lines. The fact is that staff and students care about one another more than VCs care about either. Despite the cynical co-option of a language of care, more or less direct threats to discipline students, particularly those who might fall fowl of visa restrictions, suggest the limits of management’s feeling for students affected by the strike.
Though the issues at dispute have now broadened, this in basically a continuation of the last wave of strike action, the longest in the history of British universities. The strike proved to be effective, to have the support of students, and to have highlighted working conditions in a sector too easily dismissed by observers as a world of ivory towers. Though the methods of the dispute are traditional ones – pickets, student occupations, Billy Bragg – the realities of university employment differ radically from the workplaces for which such tactics were devised. This doesn’t mean that universities are out of touch; on the contrary, these dispersed institutions, in which employees are expected to work for love not money, have much in common with seemingly very different occupations in contemporary Britain.
Everybody on the picket lines is fighting for pensions, fair pay and an end to precarity. But, as was the case last time, they’re fighting for the future of universities too. For those of us who are doing graduate work, and who look ahead to a future of precarious employment, it may well be that our biggest ‘contribution to the field’ is the fight for the future of higher education.
University of Bristol
Will Pooley – Lecturer in Modern European History
This is What Winning Looks Like
I’m fortunate to work with many colleagues who recognize the importance of the union, and of this strike.
But before the strike began, I spoke to several colleagues who weren’t members, and weren’t planning to join us. One of them told me, ‘I don’t think we can win this fight.’
I’ve been thinking a lot about this on the first few days on the picket.
No one is pretending that the issues are simple. Different union branches are on strike on either one of two different grounds – pensions and pay – or on both. The ins and outs of the pension dispute are hard even for staff to understand, let alone members of the public and students. And the pay dispute is not just about stagnating pay or pay devaluation, but also covers pay inequality, job insecurity, and rising workloads.
Resolutions to all of these disputes are unlikely to be simple or quick. Precarious employment practices and unsafe workloads are so ingrained in how modern universities work that undoing them is going to take sustained work over the long term.
But if victory is a process, not a moment, then there are signs that we are already winning.
Winning is recognition in national media coverage that the current system is broken.
Winning is the incredible support our students have shown us.
Winning is our democratically-elected representatives coming down to the pickets to hear directly from staff about the strike.
Winning is the creativity and camaraderie of the picket.
Those of us who were also on strike in 2018 remember how uplifting it was to just spend time talking to our colleagues and students. In our current broken system, who has time for that?
Winning is the Vice-Chancellor of our university coming out on to the pickets and the marches to speak to staff, and even to listen to our concerns. (When I heard him, he was being roundly criticised by hourly-paid teachers about their working conditions.)
And winning is the growing group of Vice-Chancellors speaking out to support greater pension contributions from employers.
Of course the fight is not over.
Vice-Chancellors talking to picketers, or even publicly declaring their sympathy is not the same as Vice-Chancellors taking concrete steps to address our concerns. Some of the fixes could be a lot faster than university ‘leaders’ sometimes pretend. I’d like to see my own employer adopt the approach to pay gaps championed by the University of Essex. To close their gender pay gap among professors, they simply increased all female professors’ pay.
We can hope, can’t we? My overwhelming memory of the 2018 strikes is anger. But what I’d like to say to my pessimist colleague – and indeed to any other colleagues who have not yet joined – is something about how hope is replacing my anger.
We are slowly winning this, and it’s never too late to join us.
University of Edinburgh
Fraser Raeburn – Lecturer in Modern European History
Last time around, striking felt liberating. The picket line seemed to be the first space capable of overcoming the atomisation of academic life, a place where conversations could happen spontaneously, unhurriedly and across subject borders and hierarchies, the kinds of conversations most of us became academics to have. The result was a sense of solidarity that felt exhilaratingly unfamiliar, an emotional high that pushed people through a long series of strikes to their successful conclusion.
This time, that exhilaration seems to be gone. Not because there are fewer people out, or because there is no solidarity to be found – quite the contrary. Part of the reason, inevitably, is the sheer awfulness of Edinburgh’s November weather, which has had a quite literal numbing effect. I also suspect that the novelty for most participants has worn off somewhat – the sense of giddy surprise at the power of the picket as a human space was never going to be fully recaptured. Perhaps above all though, we are all tired. This has been a long, difficult semester, perhaps only incrementally more difficult than the last one (which was only a little more difficult than the one before) but we are all reaching or approaching the end of our tethers. We are simply exhausted.
This exhaustion is why we’re striking. Many of us – particularly those of us on temporary, precarious contracts – feel like we’re being pushed to breaking point, working unsustainable hours, pushing through illness and lack of sleep to deliver teaching on a scale that seemed unimaginable a generation ago. Exhaustion, on this picket line, is not weakness, it is determination: we can’t go on like this, and the only option we have left is to challenge the system itself.
Pensions were a strong rallying point, as they affected our collective futures so tangibly, and the deal being offered was so transparently, unnecessarily cruel. It became clear during that strike, however, that this was the tip of the iceberg when it came to structural issues in UK academia. The ambition of this strike is, well, striking. We are attempting not just to address the lingering issue of pensions, but the much wider problems of workload, precarity and the pay gaps along the lines of gender, race and disability.
These are issues that require different conversations than last time around. Much of the debate around pensions was technical – what can really be afforded, how to calculate contributions and risk, what assumptions are built into the models. This time, we need to communicate truths that are more personal and emotional, lifting the curtain not just on what is happening behind the scenes of our universities, but what is happening behind the facades we put up in the classroom as we perform our roles as enthusiastic, engaged and energetic teachers. These are facades we’ve often built up just a little too well – we are good at our jobs, after all – but if we want students to understand why we’re striking, they need to come down.
University of Cambridge
Elly Robson, Research Fellow
The mood on the pickets in Cambridge has been buoyant – bolstered further by celebrity visits from Ai Weiwei and Billy Bragg. No one wants to be on strike, but there is widespread recognition among students and staff that the future of higher education is at stake. The tripling of tuition fees under the Lib Dem-Tory government in 2009 accelerated a restructuring of the university sector along highly marketised lines. This same trend has profoundly degraded the conditions, pay, and pensions of workers in the university – those whose labour is the very lifeblood of these institutions. This strike poses the question of who and what the university is for. It also widens the terms of the struggle to highlight how the young and precarious, women, BME and disabled academics and staff are hit hardest by pay freezes, short-term and zero-hours contracts, and escalating workloads.
What cabinet ministers, university managers and pension actuarialists failed to factor into their calculations was the potential for these shared struggles to converge. This week, I have watched horizontal solidarities, forged in the 2018 strikes, deepen and grow on the picket lines in Cambridge. The picket is a radical pedagogical space, in which learning takes unexpected forms and militates against the hierarchies of the classroom. We stand to learn a huge deal from the energy, organisation and vision of the students supporting the strike. The strike doesn’t just demand that “another university is possible”, but brings it into being at the level of practice: in tea-runs and teach-outs, creative placards and the political education of collective action. And there is so much that can be brought back into, and enrich, the classroom from this shared experience. Most strikingly, as Billy Bragg reminded our large rally yesterday, activism is the antidote to cynicism. Without it, we are lost.
University of Manchester
Misha Ewen – Research Fellow in Political Economy
I joined the University of Manchester last year and this is my first experience of the picket line. What I’ve witnessed so far is solidarity. Solidarity between students and staff, with students also recognising that the casualisation of academic labour impacts the education that they receive. With the rise in tuition fees, it seems to me that students are also frustrated with the increasing marketisation of university education, and with a general election looming it feels like both on and off the picket line there’s a chance for real change.
I also see the strike as an opportunity to educate students about the realities of academic labour, pay and conditions: some academic staff, who teach their courses and supervise their dissertations, are on precarious contracts, might not receive the same pay as colleagues doing equivalent work, and do work (including teaching) that is not in their contracts and goes unpaid. In this highly competitive job market, Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are often made to feel that they should be grateful for any employment and experience that strengthens their CVs, even when the conditions they face are unethical and exploitative. So, for me, fighting for fairer pay and conditions is deeply personal. I’m proud to say that over the past two days senior staff, ECRs and students have stood side-by-side in the rain (it’s Manchester, what did we expect?), but it hasn’t dampened the feeling that we’re all in this together.