This week and until 4 December, members of the University and College Union (UCU) will take industrial action for eight continuous working days. Full-time lecturers, teachers on casual contracts, researchers, academic support staff, and other university workers are striking because the university system is broken, and because the last time that the UCU waged a national strike, in February and March 2018, the breaking was not fixed.
Sixty universities face disruption. More than 40,000 UCU members are off the job. More than a million students may have at least some of their classes cancelled. If not for Conservative anti-union laws, which require a 50% turnout of affected members, these numbers would all be higher. This is no joke, and the scale of the strike is equalled only by the scale of the problems that plague higher education in the UK today.
These problems have found their way into the UCU’s demands. There is the déjà vu dispute about pensions: the 2018 strike occurred because university managers wanted to change the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) from a defined benefits scheme to a defined contributions scheme, making USS subscribers hundreds of thousands of pounds worse off. The 2018 strike forced employers to think again. But it didn’t resolve arguments over the valuation of the USS fund, an argument which determines whether or not contributions should rise, and benefits fall. This new strike has emerged out of the failure of the union and employers to agree to an alternative way forward.
Pay is another problem. The UCU estimates their members have lost about 20 percent in real terms in the past 10 years. They want a 3% rise in real pay to start to reverse that trend. At the same time, they want action from university managers on the increasing pressures of work across the university sector: academics pushed to write more papers, teach extra students, take on additional admin work, even as their pay declines. In at least one case these pressures have proved fatal. In 2018, a lecturer at Cardiff University took his own life when he could simply no longer cope with the stress.
This new university strike is directed against a modern British disease, where workers work more to earn less. It’s also aimed against another aspect of that disease, the growth of job insecurity throughout the country. In the past 20 years, university managers have watched with folded arms as a growing proportion of academic staff have been shoved onto short-term contracts. Some estimates put the number of casualised academic staff as high as 170,000. The UCU wants those managers to commit to the only known cure for insecure work: secure work on a proper contract.
The same applies to the clear differences in pay that still exist between men and women, between white and black and ethnic minority workers, and between those who are not disabled and those who are. These pay gaps have resisted all previous campaigns to stamp them out. The UCU wants universities to replace fine words and high-sounding aims about equality and diversity with action, and real results.
This dispute, then, is not about a struggling pension plan but a broken system. The last strike was like a course of therapy, where a dispute about pensions became an open discussion about the many dysfunctions of higher education in general, and created a new network of activists inside the UCU, who helped elect a new general secretary, Jo Grady, in early 2019. This new strike is an attempt to bring those dysfunctions to the public view, and have them solved.
And the UCU’s demands point beyond the failings of Vice Chancellors. University managers may have made all these problems worse, but they didn’t create the structures and systems by which universities judge success and failure. The blame for the current university mess lies ultimately with every government of the past 20 or 30 years. They have considered universities as businesses, and education as a product.
They have encouraged university managers to compete with each other for “customers,” chase league tables, measure success not by teaching quality but by opinion polls of “student satisfaction,” meet Stalinist-style production targets for research (the Research Excellence Framework), and shoulder more of the cost for the resulting “product” on those least able to pay for it: the students.
Students must pay £9,250 a year to sit in ever-larger classes, taught by overworked, underpaid, and often insecurely employed people, and encouraged to think of their education solely in terms of how it improves their “employability.” They are consumers sold a product of diminishing worth so that they can enter a job market that can only be described in a series of four-letter words. No wonder so many of them rebel and complain. No wonder so many of them support the strike.
Of course, the strike will not solve all these problems. At best, it can reverse some of the failures of universities in the last decade or so. What we also need is a political solution, and the strike is fortunate in its political timing if nothing else. As the general election comes nearer, we have a chance to unite the politics of parliament and the workplace. Even as the strike goes on, and Jeremy Corbyn declares his unconditional support for UCU members in their action, the Labour Party manifesto promises radical change for the UK.
Labour pledges an end to the marketisation of higher education, to abolish tuition fees and restore maintenance grants for students, and even end the casualisation of staff. Corbyn’s Labour, in other words, would fix many of the structural problems that have led to the present strike.
Labour will reverse the anti-trade union legislation brought in by the last Conservative government. This legislation, which requires turnout of 50% of affected members before a strike can be legally called, has already meant that UCU members at dozens of UK universities will not be on strike, no matter how high the percentage of members voting yes for action.
Reversing these anti-trade union laws is good news for workers in all industries. It is especially good news for university workers who want to make up the ground lost over decades of failed policies and retrenchments at campuses across the country, and who see the strike as one of their only effective weapons.
This strike, then, is part of a wider assault on austerity and its consequences. There is the chance for UCU members and their allies to reverse some of the worst trends in higher education. There is the chance for everyone eligible to vote to do more than just reverse some of those trends, but really change higher education for the better.
After all, few academics or other university workers enter the trade to earn a quick buck. They do it so that more people have the chance to learn more. A victory in battle on the picket lines and at the polls will take us much closer to the time when good quality education at every level is a right for the many – and not just for the few.