Earlier this month, staff at 58 universities voted in favour of strike action over pension cuts, pay, and working conditions. The University and College Union (UCU) has demanded a pay increase, an end to ‘pay injustice’ and zero-hours contracts, action to tackle ‘unmanageable workloads’, and an end to the erosion of pensions. A sector riddled with precarity, underfunding, and archaic working practices, this year’s university strikes will be an indictment of the depth of discontent within higher education.
Following the successful ballot, students at University College London—the UK’s biggest higher education institution—came out in opposition to the plans. After two consecutive academic years blighted by Covid-19, the student union at UCL, which has more than 41,000 students, stated it would ‘not support potential upcoming nationwide strikes by academics’ after periods of repeated disruption due to previous strikes as well as the pandemic.
Industrial action is not unusual in higher education. Every academic year since 2018 has been punctuated by strikes, with the largest ever strike (lasting for 14 days across 74 universities) taking place last year. The irony of these actions taking place in supposed centres of excellence whose reputations rest on their academic staff is lost to neither students nor staff—and they are proof of the failures of management, not of the staff members who are suffering. The exploitation of those staff members is evident in the fact that nearly half of the country’s vice-chancellors earn more than £300,000.
Higher education is second only to hospitality as the most casualised sector of the UK economy. Exploitation has become central to the university model, with ethnic minorities and women bearing the brunt of underpayment and long working hours. At Goldsmiths, University of London, where lecturers in Black History were hit with the threat of redundancy in the middle of Black History Month, it is estimated that academic staff on casualised contracts do approximately 39 percent of the teaching work for only 7 percent of the wages. At Cambridge University, nearly half of undergraduate tutorials—for which the institution is renowned—are delivered by precariously employed staff without proper contracts. Those on the sharpest end of cuts to higher education more generally have sometimes been compelled to visit food banks and, for one lecturer, confined to live in a tent for two years.
Aware both of this exploitation and of the discontent among students, politicians and university management are keen to deploy divide-and-rule tactics. The vice chancellors who were once so open in their disdain for students’ mental health or for their rent-striking tactics now express fear over the academic repercussions of strike action, and students have magically engendered sympathy from Tory MPs. Esther McVey, for one, was quick to point out that paying £9,000 a year for no education is frustrating.
She’s right—but her party has a large responsibility for the education students have missed out on. Years of worsening marketisation have seen universities turned from places of education into places of exploitation. Funding for higher education has been slashed, pledges to cut tuition fees have been dropped, student rents have risen, and the precarious employment models that university staff are now organising against have become endemic.
Academic staff now find themselves trapped in a managerial culture obsessed with league tables, targets, and performance. Management perpetuates a culture of fear and relies on the love of staff for their subjects, while the press directs public attention away from these serious problems and onto manufactured ‘free speech’ crises. The trope of the ‘lazy academic’ who has ‘half the year off’ lingers over the public’s preconceived hostility toward strike action, but the extortionate £9,250 paid by students doesn’t line the pockets of the lecturers that teach them.
In fact, students and lecturers are part of the same battle. Learning conditions are often a reflection of working conditions: insecure, poorly paid, and overworked academic staff are inconducive to an environment fostering creative development and research. Students are fighting a similar system of exploitation by a university model that sees them only as cash cows. Both students and staff are facing mental health crises; both have sometimes been forced to turn to food banks to survive. As such, these strikes will also be about protecting students’ own futures—and about reinvesting heart into the universities at which they learn.
That means it’s in the interests of students to act in solidarity with the staff who teach them. Such solidarity has precedent. Academics at the University of Bristol backed student tenants in the rent strikes of 2020, for example, calling for their teaching award nominations to be rescinded in protest against the university’s decision to bring in private debt collectors to retrieve the money withheld. Now students need to return that support.
To diminish the strike’s vital importance, vice chancellors recently compared staff working from home during the pandemic with taking strike action—proof of how out of touch those at the top really are. During a Universities UK press conference, Oxford Brookes vice-chancellor Alistair Fitt noted that universities ‘have been able to cope with zero percent of staff coming on campus [during Covid], so I am sure we can cope with this.’ Fitt clearly doesn’t want to engage with the reality that proves collective action works: just in September, industrial action by staff at the University of Liverpool undid management’s plans for 47 redundancies.
The strikes now facing universities reflect how far the elite’s priorities have drifted from the institutions’ fundamental purpose. Expressing solidarity will be key in the upcoming battle, and students must not succumb to divide-and-rule. If this major action by UCU members is successful, it could mark a turning point for the university sector as a whole—one which students sorely need, too.