Today, 70,000 staff at over 150 universities begin their biggest ever strike. As students, it’s in our best interests to support them.
Believe it or not, lecturers actually quite like us, and understand their teaching conditions are our learning conditions. We can’t get good quality teaching when staff are worried about living paycheck to paycheck. Pay for academic staff has fallen 20% in real terms over the last twelve years, while on average vice-chancellors enjoy £269,000 salaries, rising to £500,000 at some institutions. For new teaching staff it’s even worse: low paid, insecure, zero-hours contracts are the norm. One PhD student on a zero-hours contract lived homeless while teaching at Royal Holloway University. These contracts often discriminate by gender, too—last year it was revealed around 66% of staff on zero-hours contracts at the University of Sheffield are women.
The conditions staff are forced to work in make their demands essential. The ‘four fights’ university staff are striking over—demands for fair pay, a normal workload, ending gender and racial inequality, and reversing casualisation—are vital for upholding an accessible, inquisitive, and enjoyable learning environment. Coupled with the huge cuts to pensions staff at some universities are facing, it’s not hard to see why workers have voted to strike.
Many will be angry at the strikes, arguing students too are struggling right now, and that the last thing we need is more disruption. They’re right: students really are struggling in the cost of living crisis, which has seen the biggest ever dip in our living standards. Research published by the NUS found a quarter of us have £50 a month left after paying bills, and 42% are surviving off less than £100 a month. Nine out of ten of us say the crisis has affected our mental health. Wages have stagnated and in the last eleven years rent has nearly doubled.
Look around at your ‘student experience’ vice-chancellors hark on about. It’s sky-high rents, reaching 97% of the maximum maintenance loan in some cities; it’s chronic poverty, from desperately low maintenance loans and wages; it’s universities investing in arms companies and fossil fuels, selling our future for easy money; it’s universities ignoring spiking and sexual violence to protect their image; it’s students and staff being left destitute as vice-chancellors stuff our fees into their pockets and shiny vanity projects—those new buildings worth millions of pounds your university doesn’t need, but which they think can give your campus a bit more pazazz.
In the seventies, students had the audacity to dream we could be paid a wage for studying. Students used to be able to collect housing benefits alongside maintenance grants, not loans; teaching staff had enough time and security to spend quality 1:1 tutorials with you; wages went further because students knew the power of a union. Above all, tuition used to be free.
How did we get into such a desperate situation today? UCU members and student activists will often talk about marketisation, a decades-long process that’s seen us reduced to passive consumers rather than active participants in our own education. They’re right to: marketisation turns education into something to be bought and sold, and it makes our universities function more like businesses whose priorities are chasing fees and rent and cutting courses, not teaching.
Tuition fees were introduced as part of this push to make universities more ‘competitive’. Really, that push has left them staffed by workers facing vicious attacks on their pay, pensions, and working conditions, and filled with students with less security and more stress than ever before. Our struggle and that of UCU members in our institutions are not separate. They are the same fight.
A university is a powerful and wealthy institution. There’s no way to hold this bureaucracy accountable except through collective action. It’s why the Student Cost of Living Campaign that launched this week have been so vocal about needing to support the strike. It’s why UCU members were there in 2010 when we protested the tripling of tuition fees. And it’s why they were there when students led the largest rent strike this country had seen in 40 years. UCU members know that their struggle for a university system that gives dignity and strength to the people within it is, and always has been, ours too.
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors and employers in the pensions dispute, said last year strikes will only hurt students ‘enjoying the buzz of campus life’. After all this, do we really believe management care about our experience on campus? University bosses spent the pandemic and the time following it ignoring students’ cries for help; now they claim it’s the lecturers who are causing problems. Are we really going to let them feign concern for us and use us as a pawn to exploit our staff?
We are the university, the students and staff. It is us that keeps universities going. Only by striking, disrupting, occupying, and protesting are we going to win it back.