On the Picket Line with the UCU

As the biggest university strike in British history enters its second month, we speak to workers on the picket lines about the impacts of insecure hours, unpaid work and gender inequality on their lives.

Daniel is pacing outside the social sciences faculty in a thin black coat in an effort to keep warm. It’s snowing lightly and there’s a coarseness to the air which is fairly typical of Edinburgh at 8am in February. He’s joined by maybe a dozen others and there’s a distinct sense of déjà vu. That’s because Daniel, like his colleagues, is a university tutor, and for the third time in two years he’s out on strike.

There are thousands of Daniels across the country as staff at 74 universities throughout the UK take industrial action for 14 days across the next 3 weeks. The dispute dates back to 2018, when Daniel and many others walked out over proposals to radically overhaul the USS pensions system by increasing contributions and tying pensions to investments instead of workplace contribution. The action was the most substantial in higher education history and to many represented a tipping point for the university labour market.

“You can tell this is becoming the new normal,” he says as he adjusts a hanging banner, stood in the same spot as he was in in 2018. Since then, and nearly two years to the day, the movement has expanded in scope and scale. Now, the strike is also challenging the decades-long trend towards flexibility in the sector, which has seen staff face increasingly precarious conditions with only diminishing pay packets to show for it. The demands seem simple on the face of it, the UCU has raised four additional ‘fights’ they’re resisting: casualisation, falling pay, growing workloads and social inequalities. 

However, despite these specific demands, Daniel and his colleagues suggest that the anger is wider and more deeply-rooted. “We’re building a movement against the neoliberal university,” he tells me as he rubs his numb hands together, “and you can’t separate these demands from the broader marketisation of academic institutions.” The last tutorial he gave was on Marx’s theory of alienation, “I sometimes feel like he’s writing about us,” he says with a wry grin. 

Daniel came to the UK about a decade ago to study, “initially I had real ambitions and principles around teaching,” he says, “but those fell away pretty swiftly when my work wasn’t recognised or rewarded.” Like most of the people here, he’s on a fixed-term contract, which in recent years has come to symbolise casualisation. Fixed-terms typically last between six months to two years, and with such a short expiry on the placements, many workers feel under pressure not to rock the boat, for fear of their contract not getting renewed in a few months. 

The lack of job security means that in many academic institutions, staff are over-worked, underpaid and constantly in fear that a bad reference could come back to haunt them. Most of these contracts pay hourly at just above the minimum wage and while they are precarious and insecure, they govern a large part of university life. Last month the UCU laid the figures bare, showing that 33,000 researchers and 30,000 teaching staff, like Daniel, are on fixed-terms, and that’s without mentioning the 70,000 university employees who are counted as ‘atypical academics’ or the 7,000 on zero-hour contracts. 

This sort of insecurity is always strategic. Casualisation is deployed not only so management has a ready pool of cheap labour, but to break the backs of workers’ resistance. “The university knows that it could not function without us,” Daniel explains, “but it simultaneously knows that most of us are in incredibly desperate situations.” To him, the instability is not a by-product but a feature of a business model predicated on short, insecure contracts. 

Daniel’s contract is up for review in a few months, it guarantees him a minimum of 132 hours of teaching throughout the year. However, in reality he and his colleagues work far in excess of that. Indeed, in recent years the profession has become plagued by soaring workloads without appropriate compensation. Staff know that this comes as a direct result of insecurity. As Daniel and I talk, his friend Jess approaches, clutching a keep-cup of coffee. Jess is a PhD student and tutor who has been hit hard by the exponential increases in workloads. She sometimes works sixty hours a week across six days in an effort to pay the rent. 

Talking to others along the picket line demonstrates how grimly typical this is, the majority of staff seem to work six days or more and almost all work in excess of fifty hours a week. “You start to internalise this need to work – if you take one day off a week you’re racked with guilt afterwards,” Jess explains. Others confirm that the increase in workload has proven unsustainable, with one tutor telling me that her workload has recently tripled with no extra remuneration. 

Last month the UCU recorded that over 70% of staff on part-time, hourly paid contracts believe that the job is detrimental to their mental health. It is clear why, as it increasingly feels like staff are seen as a resource to exploit with little regard for their personal wellbeing. This is neoliberalism in practice, destroying any form of labour market protections in the pursuit of ‘flexibility’ — not just in supermarkets or industrial workplaces, but in ‘white-collar’ occupations too.

Staff from different schools, qualifications and contexts all point to the ubiquity of unpaid work throughout higher education as indicative of a system which refuses to serve its workforce. The amount performed by staff might differ between faculties, but any interrogation makes clear that higher education at all levels is run on the backs of substantial amounts of unpaid labour. With many thousands of hours being taught without any pay whatsoever, the reality is that most teaching staff are earning well below the minimum wage. A startling recent report from the UCU found that 45% of work done by part-time and hourly paid staff received no remuneration at all.

Daniel explains that to prepare his last tutorial on Marx, he was paid for an hour’s work. That is 60 minutes to read 75 pages of Marx, engage with it, create a lesson around it and answer students’ out of hour queries. “That can take up to three hours,” he says. He estimates that between a third and a half of his work is unpaid and that this can vary greatly depending on the week. Jess tells a similar story, her three-hour tutorial will often take six hours to plan, of which she will only be paid for half. “This isn’t a small feature of the university, the whole system is run on us working for free,” she tells me. 

When staff are paid, the picture is not always pretty either. University teaching staff have experienced a real pay cut of about 20% in the past nine years. Down at the official march and subsequent protest at the Scottish parliament, staff assemble outside the dystopian-looking grey structure nestled at the foot of Arthur’s Seat. There, I speak to Jen, a researcher in the school of geography at Herriot-Watt University, who says that for the past decade the growth of insecurity has also coincided with the sort of poverty many thought white-collar professionals were exempt from. “You just get used to being skint” she tells me, “and if I’m honest I have it better off than some, I know many friends who teach by day and use banks at night.” 

Once again, Jen knows all too well about fixed-terms and the sorts of pressure it allows management to exert. Many of the jobs she’s had extend the probation period to two or three years. Any dismissal over that time is fair game from the university’s point of view. Once, she tells me she received a letter telling her she’d completed her contract a few months before she received another congratulating her on passing her probation. She is here today mainly to protest about gender equality. While many focus on the pay gap between men and women for the same work, Jen is quick to remind me that on a whole range of issues – be it insecurity, casualisation or unpaid labour – women (particularly minority women) are at the sharpest end. 

This is seen explicitly throughout the sector – insecurity is often used to punish women for the crime of raising families in a way that it never is for their male counterparts. This has led women I spoke to on the picket lines to work through their maternity leave chasing insecure contracts. ”When there is an entrenched group of white blokes setting the rules,” Jen explains, “they are obviously going to miss out other groups and there are a whole range of issues that impact women most.” 

The UCU under its new General Secretary Jo Grady has identified the problem as being intimately tied to insecure contracts. Women, particularly minority women, are under-represented in the academic workforce and yet they make up a disproportionate percentage of those on the sorts of insecure contracts that necessitate poor wages, unsustainable workloads and casualisation.

Back outside the social sciences faculty it looks like rain is imminent as people shuffle under cover. For Daniel and his friends, I sense it feels like a long struggle, one which has seen them lose pay they could scarcely afford. But at the same time, there is a pride in the air. The workers here know that this dispute will fundamentally decide the future of the university. 

Yet, while there is no denying movements’ recent radicalisation, its demands seem genuinely modest. “All we are asking for is relatively stable employment,” Daniel says. Every staff member I spoke to on the picket prefaced their grievances with a message for their students, reassuring them that better working conditions for staff would mean better learning conditions for them. They are aware this is a difficult situation for those studying as well. 

While the demands may be hard won, the strike has already won a victory by exposing the exploitation underpinning higher education. These strikes, like the junior doctors and the midwifes before them, show quite clearly that no one is safe from a flexible labour market. The new generation of younger and more precarious workers in academia know that and have shifted the debate; whether it can be translated into the new university model they’re hoping for remains to be seen.