Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at sixty universities in the UK, including Cardiff University, will be engaging in a wave of 8 days of strike action from Monday 25th November to Wednesday 4th December followed by ‘action short of a strike’ which involves strictly working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, and refusing to reschedule lectures lost during the strike action.
This is a strike of staff in 60 universities which includes lecturing academic staff who teach and/or do research but is not limited to them – it also includes postgraduate students who teach, professional services staff, technicians, librarians, and other categories of academic-related staff who are members of UCU. This is not just a “lecturers” strike because it is not only lecturers who are striking – university staff who are members of UCU are striking!
This strike is also about much more than just pensions alone! This strike is also not just about pay! The issues we are striking over this time in addition to pensions – precarity, pay, inequality, workload – affect a wider group of different kinds of university staff and go to the heart of the big problems affecting workers across the higher education sector as a whole. Our ‘four fights’ are supported by all unions covering workers in higher education – the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), GMB, Unison, and Unite – but only UCU members are taking strike action.
The UK higher education sector as a whole is in an ongoing crisis and too many university workers are at breaking point and have had enough of their working conditions. Yet, there is a very poor understanding of these conditions within university in the broader society. People often do not know what academics or researchers or postgraduates or professional services colleagues actually do every day. There is also a wider anti-intellectual culture within British society where education, what happens in schools, colleges and universities, and the people who work in these institutions are not properly valued – especially by government. In last year’s strike, we made the point that staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Without a properly valued workforce, it will not be possible for staff to work to the best of their abilities to support and educate their students.
University staff do not want to go on strike, and we profoundly regret any disruption the strike might cause, especially to our students, but striking is the best way of making our employers take our demands seriously.
A strike is also about much more than disruption. Striking is the best way to educate people, including our colleagues, students, and the public, about what it is like working and studying within UK higher education at the current time. By going on strike, our working conditions hit the headlines, and this encourages everyone to openly discuss and debate the important issues we are highlighting. (See below on how this happens and how you can get involved).
Pensions: Why We Are Striking Again
Last year, university staff who are members of the UCU in the USS pension scheme took strike action to defend our pensions, which were going to be cut by over half. For example, the £20,000 per year pension of a 40 year old male academic with 15 years’ experience of lecturing was going to be cut to £9,000 which is just a little more than the state pension. Our 14 days of strike action, which was the most significant industrial action in the recent history of UK higher education, made our employers stop in their tracks and listen to us. Now, our employers have failed to act on the expert advice given by the joint expert panel convened to assess the health of the USS pension scheme, and increased the pension contributions an average member makes by £40,000, but which will result in them receiving £200,000 less pension benefits in retirement. (A pension is like deferred wages because we pay into our pension pots each month). Our employers plan to keep on increasing our contributions, whilst decreasing the value of our pensions, and in the long run end guaranteed pension benefits for university staff in the USS scheme. This year, by threatening 8 days of strike action now, UCU members with USS pensions are saying ‘enough is enough’ to our employers, and hoping that they will listen to our concerns and take action to stop devaluing our pensions.
During last year’s pensions strike, many postgraduate students – especially PhD students – who do not even have a pension, stood alongside staff and supported our strike. While last year’s dispute was about pensions, it quickly evolved to also become about contesting the wider conditions of marketisation in the university sector. In 2019, as well as pensions, UCU members at 60 universities are now getting to together to strike over what’s called the ‘four fights’ – issues which affect all staff and postgraduate students across the sector – precarity, pay, inequality, and workloads.
The Four Fights
The university relies upon a significant number of staff – which includes lecturers, seminar tutors, demonstrators, researchers, and professional services staff – being on precarious or casual contracts which do not provide secure and sustainable working conditions. Nationally, 70% of researchers and 51% of teaching-only staff are on fixed-term contracts, and the number of workers with precarious contracts is likely to be much higher than this, because these figures do not include the 60,000-70,000 staff on so-called ‘atypical’ contracts who are hourly paid. Students might not know that the lecturers, seminar tutors or postgraduate demonstrators who teach them, or the professional services colleagues who support them in their studies, are likely to be working on a precarious contract. In a UCU survey of over 800 Cardiff University staff, only 38% said they feel secure or very secure in their jobs, and 42% said their sense of security has deteriorated over the years. Our university does not even consider postgraduates who teach to be employees and members of our anti-casualisation group have been demanding for a number of years the university gives our postgraduate workers employee rights. We are striking to demand our employers agree to an action plan to address the widespread and rising precarity within the sector.
Since 2009, the cumulative loss to university staff pay is 20% which is equivalent to a 20% real terms pay cut. Meanwhile, last year, average Vice Chancellor pay increased by 3.5% from £245,000 to £253,000. UCU members are demanding our pay increases by keeping up (retail price index (RPI)) and catching up (plus 3%) this year (or a minimum increase of £3,349 (whichever is greater)). We need our pay to keep up and catch up. 60% of the students who responded to the Hepi Student Academic Experience survey said they want their tuition fees to be spent on teaching staff, while 20% want it spent on senior management staff. University staff are demanding a pay rise and also that all higher education employees earn at minimum a Living Wage of at least £10 per hour.
The average gender pay gap in the UK higher education sector is 16%, with 30 institutions reporting gaps of over 20%. At Cardiff University, the mean gender pay gap is 21.6% which puts our university among those institutions with the highest gender pay gap. Cardiff University employs fewer women in senior roles than men, and more women relative to men at lower grades. Nationally, women are more likely to be on fixed-term, hourly-paid, and zero-hours contracts. UCEA show black non-UK women and black non-UK men suffer the most significant pay penalty compared to white UK men. Union members are demanding our employers take concrete action to close gender and ethnicity pay gaps.
Universities rely upon staff routinely working unpaid overtime. Staff in higher and further education work on average two days unpaid each week. Following the tragic suicide in the Business School of Dr Malcolm Anderson just before the strike last year, over 500 Cardiff University staff signed an open letter to our Vice Chancellor demanding urgent action to decrease staff workloads. A mere 52% of staff in the 2017 Cardiff University annual Staff Survey said they could meet the requirements of their job without ‘regularly working unreasonable hours’. While a review of the workload management system was conducted, the problem of excessive staff workloads remains. We are striking to pressure our employers to take concrete action to reduce our excessive workloads.
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