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University Workers Are Fighting for the Future of Education

Since 2009, the efforts of ministers and managers have seen real pay for university staff drop 25%, and insecurity, debt, and mental ill-health become rife. If we want the sector to change, we have to back the workers fighting back.

Protesters take part in a union rally on 30 November 2022 in London, England. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

As university staff take to picket lines again today it is vital that the movement gets behind them. We need to stand together as part of a coordinated response to the cost of living crisis and the long-term assault on employees under successive Conservative governments.

UCU is on the frontline, part of a number of disputes that see sectors meant to serve the public good being reduced to threadbare private sector employment arrangements, despite the sectors continuing to benefit from record revenues and profits.

The union is demanding fair treatment for staff in higher education after a decade of falling pay, cuts to pensions arrangements, and longer working hours on increasingly precarious contracts. It is vital that a line is drawn in the sand so that these losses can start to be rolled back.

Staff in higher education aren’t alone in facing these problems. The same is happening elsewhere, with privatised rail companies seeking to cut staff and hold down pay and the private management of Royal Mail doing the same, with increasingly casualised contract arrangements.

In each case, it is the trade unions, the RMT, the CWU, and UCU who are standing up for employees.

This is a vital issue for all of us, but this dispute has personal significance for me.

Before becoming an MP I worked as a researcher at Swansea University, during which time I witnessed first-hand the difficulties experienced by staff and personally endured these. Throughout my ten years of employment at the University I was on casualised fixed term contracts. I had no job security, experienced breaks in employment and had very limited career progression opportunities because I was having to continually move between jobs, often taking work that was outside of my areas of interest in order to remain in employment.

Over the period I worked at the University I only received a limited increase in pay, my income fluctuated due to the frequent change in working hours and when studying for my PhD I did accrue debt. The precarious nature of the work caused me stress and anxiety and, at times, affected my health and wellbeing.

My experience was by no means isolated but was rather the norm, with most research and many academic staff experiencing similar or worse. Colleagues would talk about the financial hardship they were suffering, about not being able to afford daily expenses or get a mortgage because of the fixed term nature of their work and accruing debt. A significant worry for all staff was their pension rights.

Staff were also concerned that they were unable to specialise in their area of expertise and interest, were working extremely long hours in order to complete the work and feared being penalised or even losing their insecure job.

There was a general consensus and concern about the negative impact this was having upon students. Several colleagues also told me they suffered discrimination but felt unable to speak out for fear of losing their insecure job. It will come as no surprise when I say that staff morale, given all these factors, was low, with many talking about the detrimental impact upon their mental health and suffering with depression and anxiety.

I became increasingly frustrated and angry because it was clear that the situation was avoidable and could be remedied and so I got involved with the local UCU branch to campaign and fight back. We organised a range of activities to bring attention to the plight of research and academic staff including surveys, meetings, protests, and eventually entered into negotiation with the University over the casualisation of the sector with some success.

So despite the hardship endured I want to use my experience to emphasise the positive collective spirit of staff in the face of adversity, and their determination to challenge the unfair working conditions and to stress the power that I believe we truly have when we stand united to bring about change.

The value of staff pay in higher education fell by 17.6% relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019. UCU says that based on the employers’ offer and recent inflation data, that figure is now approximately 25%. This is a huge devaluing of work in higher education which threatens the future of higher education in the UK.

Not content with cutting pay, the employer representative, Universities UK, pushed through major cuts to the guaranteed, defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme to prevent employers from having to pay higher contributions, drastically reducing the level of guaranteed retirement income.

On top of falling pay and pensions, the casualisation of academic employment is a huge problem, with around one-third of all academic staff  employed on fixed-term contracts; this figure rises to almost half for teaching-only academics and over two-thirds for research-only staff. Casual contracts erode the rights, protections, and security that should be afforded to all employees.

Yet at the same time as we see attacks on employee pay and increasingly precarious work across higher education and other privatised public institutions, it is clear that they are awash with finance. The income of higher education institutions rose to £41.1 billion in the financial year 2020-21, with £3.4 billion more cash in the bank than year before.

Vice-Chancellors are also  earning huge salaries with the average over £300,000 per year. These inequalities are stark in Wales, where the top five highest-paid public sector jobs are university vice-chancellors. At the University of Swansea, the figure is £293,000 per year. At the University of Cardiff it is £271,000. Those at Cardiff Met, University of Wales Trinity St David, and Aberystwyth University all earn over £200,000.

The increased disparity in pay and pensions between staff at the top and bottom, and the increased use of casualised contracts, also becomes an issue for students. It impacts on their experience of university, while the level of student debt continues to soar.

It’s welcome therefore to see the levels of support for university staff from students, who have their own campaigns to wage. Labour Students National Committee reportedly pledged itself to campaigning for an end to fees and for a policy of free education, in line with recent general election manifestoes. As students back university staff, so must the wider movement.

The campaign against falling pay and growing inequality, the increased use of casualised employment, is happening across multiple sectors. It is a broad assault on employees that has to be resisted by organised labour, and by progressive activists.

That’s why I welcomed agreement at the TUC last October to coordinate industrial action and to see that realised on 1 February by NEU, PCS, and UCU, alongside other unions. This coordination needs to develop, and deepen, if we are to defeat these assaults on employees in public service institutions.

In universities, it is up to vice chancellors to resolve these disputes and start treating staff with respect. Until they do, I will be supporting my old colleagues on the picket line.