University workers are out on strike and I support them. Action has to be taken to improve pensions, pay, equality, casualisation and workloads in the sector. That staff feel they have to take action on these issues is hardly surprising – the numbers are shocking.
A recent survey of UCU members found that on average they work 51 hour weeks. No wonder there is an ‘epidemic’ of mental health problems in the sector, with overwork and precarious working conditions creating anxiety, stress and depression, alongside a culture of bullying in higher education institutions.
Since 2009 pay has been cut in real terms by nearly 20%, there are over 69,000 workers on “atypical contracts” – a euphemism in many cases for insecure working – with 10% of these being zero-hours contracts.
While pay for staff has fallen and pension contributions go up, just under half of vice chancellors’ salaries exceed £300,000 per year. Women are paid an average of 15% less than men; research suggests the BAME pay gap across the sector is 26%, with recent reports that fewer than 1% of professors at universities are Black.
On pay, pensions, equality, working conditions and workloads, our higher education system is failing university workers, but it’s also failing our students. They’re taught and supported by tired, overworked and underpaid staff.
Fees mean people are burdened with huge debts at the start of their working lives. At the end of the 2018/19 the bill exceeded £120 billion, a total that of course has and will continue to balloon with fees now in excess of £9,000 per year because of the Conservative-led coalition government. Much of this will never be paid back – particularly in an economy that is blighted by low pay and insecurity.
And of course, that is to say nothing of those who feel unable to go to university. In December it was reported that the gap between students from low income backgrounds and others in terms of progression to higher education had reached its widest point in more than a decade.
During my campaign for Labour leader I’ve talked about the socialist country I want us to build – one in which everyone is able to realise their aspirations, not just a lucky few.
There are many building blocks for this: high-quality housing, a social security system worthy of the name, well-paid unionised jobs, good universal public services and more. And a key pillar we need to enable everyone to realise their aspirations is a world-leading education system, free and available to all.
Yet at the moment not only are too many let down by our education system, particularly after a decade of school and education cuts, but the very institutions that are supposed to be about broadening horizons, opening opportunities and driving equality are themselves contributing to social inequality.
I believe that as a party we should stand with the staff who are demanding that something changes, just as we should back other workers in disputes against unfair and exploitative employers. As a country we can do better for university workers, and crucially for our children and young people who should have a right to free lifelong learning.
Marketisation and the fees system have failed. It’s an approach that leads universities to spend millions on impressive new buildings which are left empty by staff who feel they need to take strike action over their ever declining pay and conditions.
We need to stop seeing students as sharp-elbowed individuals who only go to university to compete in the labour market, and recognise further and higher education is a common good for our society. We have a responsibility to make the most of everyone’s potential and talent – no matter what their background. Every child has a right to go to a good school, to grow and decide whether further education, higher education or a high-quality apprenticeship is for them – based on their talents, skills, interests and dreams, not their parent’s income bracket.
We need a vision of education that puts human beings first – that sees universities as communities of people who aspire together to find out more about the world, and using that knowledge to improve quality of life for all of us.
The workers and their trade union, the UCU, who are fighting for greater equality and a better education system are part of this vision. It is one struggle amongst many that will take place over the coming months and years as people take action against this government and its policies. Labour must always be on the right side if we are to rebuild our movement and unite all of our heartlands, in all of their diversity, from Blyth to Brixton and forge our path to power.