Together We Can Win: Vote “Yes” to action on pay, equality, and fighting the McUniversity

The following is from talk given at yesterday’s members’ meeting by Steven Stanley, Cardiff UCU Executive Committee member. Follow Steven on Twitter @dr_stevestanley.

This is my 15th year as a lecturer here at Cardiff and I joined the executive committee this year following the strike. I’ve been thinking about how the current UCU campaign and ballot over Pay & Equality links to the pensions dispute.

The pensions dispute was about resisting the proposed cuts to our pensions. But the strike very publically exposed a range of problems with working and studying conditions across the university sector. The Pay & Equality campaign brings together a range of connected issues to do with the crises affecting UK higher education. This campaign is about collectively resisting four things:

  1. Loss in value of our pay
  2. Inequalities in pay – including pay gaps
  3. Casualised conditions
  4. Workload and stress

This new pay campaign means coming together to fight against unfair and unequal conditions and treatment for those of us studying and working in UK higher education.

“We discovered our strength”

For many of us, the strike was a kind of collective consciousness-raising about universities. We now all know what UUK and USS stand for – literally and metaphorically – and more about pensions than we ever wanted to know. While we may have been acutely aware of the problems that beset British universities, and routinely moaned about them with our colleagues – it is rare to see university staff on strike. We discovered our strength and capacity for taking collective action on a mass scale. Union membership has grown accordingly.

During the strike, we witnessed the emergence of a grass-roots academic power – academic activism and politicised research and scholarship, such as conducted by the USS Briefs collective, and our own academics here at Cardiff, led to: a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) report. This JEP challenged the evidence base UUK was using to justify their cuts to our pensions.

We said during the strike that pensions are deferred pay. My pension was due to be cut to £8,000 from £20,000 – under UUK’s proposed changes.

Wages are falling, the gender pay gap is increasing:

Coincidentally I discovered the other day that, using the UCU online calculator, as a ‘mid-career’ male academic, my annual pay would now be £8000 more if our salaries had kept pace with inflation since 2010. Average academic staff salaries at Cardiff are £56,000 for men and £46,000 for women. The Pay & Equality campaign is about resisting the gender pay gap – and other pay gaps.

Since 2009, university staff pay growth has risen by 1%, which in real terms equates to a 17% pay cut. The cumulative loss to our pay, when compared to rises in Retail Price Index, is 21%. Meanwhile, since the same year, University Vice-Chancellor salaries have risen by 13%, and now average VC salaries are over £250,000 with the highest VC salary being £808,000. To put this into context, the British Prime Minister’s salary is capped at £150,000 per year. The Pay & Equality campaign is about resisting such gross inequalities.

Resisting the precarious University:

The Pay & Equality campaign is also about resisting the precarious university. In 2016, the Guardian reported that over 50% of academics teaching or doing research in British universities are on so-called ‘atypical’ fixed-term contracts – short-term, insecure, non-permanent, hourly-paid, ‘zero’ hours. Three quarters of junior academics, most likely to be doing frontline teaching, are on precarious contracts. So-called ‘atypical’ contracts seem to be quite typical! They report that, at Cardiff, the percentage of teaching and teaching-and-research staff on temporary contracts is 23.1% (but the figure could be higher because this might exclude graduate teaching assistants, who The University does not consider employees).

PhD students especially stood with us during the pension strike to defend our pensions – often bringing their inspiring and frankly more youthful energy. Now, we have the chance to stand in solidarity with them by saying ‘no’ to precarious working and studying conditions.

During the strike, we conceptually brought together the various problems of universities through our creativity and academic activism. I was very tempted to give this talk in the genre of a rap we performed on the picket lines. Instead, in scholarly style, I will quote from the rap I co-wrote with my wife:

“When you’re telling us that austerity
Is the reason for the cuts at university
Please explain to me with greater clarity
This seemingly erroneous disparity:
while your salaries keep on inflatin’
Our wages are just left stagnatin’
And it’s really rather scary that
You disrespect precariat”

Our working conditions are students learning conditions:

Meanwhile, our students look on in horror and disbelief. Our undergraduate students are paying extortionate tuition fees, which are expected to keep on rising, and may graduate with £50,000 of debt. UK university incomes have increased by 33%. University bosses preside over massive increases in capital expenditure – building buildings – which have increased in last 5 years by 35%. But, as the strike slogans go: ‘Buildings Don’t Teach, People Do’. ‘Our Working Conditions Are Students’ Learning Conditions’. We need decent buildings, but the balance has tipped too far in favour of vanity building projects just to keep up with our university competitors. If those in charge of ‘leading’ our universities do not start properly and genuinely valuing their staff, I can only foresee a continuing crisis for British universities – less ‘satisfaction’, more discontent and distress, and more strikes.

Fighting back against crippling workloads:

The Pay & Equality campaign is also, finally, about resisting the workload problems which are an endemic problem across the sector. During the strike, I met colleagues who are exhausted, ill, and afraid – of their employers, and of the impact on students of striking to defend their right to fair and safe working conditions. People are overworked and underpaid. More and more is expected of us, with less and less resources, and for less and less value. We are given more responsibility, but with less power to make decisions about how we do what we do.

The Way Forward strategy for Cardiff University, launched in 2013, made it clear what the new climate would be: performance expectations to be ‘excellent’ would be increasing, and those who cannot cut the mustard should seriously think about applying for Voluntary Severance. Less productive and efficient elements of the organisation should be removed. If you cannot take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Our VC gives the impression that we are all in the same boat – we all need to tighten our belts. But this is a highly selective austerity – not everyone is struggling in the same way.

We are currently engaged in a UCU workload campaign here at Cardiff, which is taking place following the tragic death of our colleague Malcolm Anderson from the Business School, who took his own life in the School, in February – in the first week of the strike. He attributed his decision to end his life to increasing workload pressures. How many more staff and student suicides are we collectively willing to accept – at Cardiff and across the UK university sector – before things need to change in a radical way? In his All-Staff Email of 29 June this year, our VC writes that it is ‘difficult to do more than speculate’ about the causes of increases in mental health problems, and remarks upon ‘the near invisibility of their causes’. Our VC does not seem to have made a connection between the increasing performance expectations of The Way Forward, our escalating workloads, the devaluing of our profession and mental health problems. In the following month, over 500 staff and students signed an open letter addressed to our VC expressing concerns about workload. We said that in the 2017 Staff Satisfaction Survey, only 19% of Teaching and Research Staff at our university agreed that they can meet the requirements of their job without working unreasonable hours. It will take much more than suicide awareness training for staff and students and another round of focus groups on ‘wellbeing’ and ‘work-life balance’ to change the causes which lead to the profound feelings of overwhelm and distress that working conditions can produce. ‘The University’ needs to do much more, and in a much more genuine and sincere way, to make our conditions fair and safe.

Vote “Yes” to action with all our University colleagues:

During the strike many of us felt a collective joy which came from recognising that we are not alone in our struggles. It is possible to feel together in our problems – our personal issues are public troubles, the personal is political. Indeed, Pay & Equality in higher education are cross-sector issues, bringing UCU together four other HE trade unions – including the industrial workers unions Unite and GMB, the Scottish Teacher Union EIS, and UNISON – the public sector worker union.

UNISON is asking its higher education workers to vote ‘yes’ for strike action; in their consultative ballot two thirds have rejected their pay offer. The other day, I spoke with a colleague in catering who works in our cafes who had voted ‘yes’ to go on strike. She said she was not sure whether it was the right thing to do, but that she had to do it. It felt good to feel solidarity with her, and we laughed when we imagined the next time we might each other, standing together on the picket line.

This is an opportunity for us to take a stand now, not just for ourselves, but to build solidarity with all of us workers who make this university possible. Without us, the university has little chance of even being good enough, let alone ‘world-leading’. The decisions we make now will affect our future and the future generations of academics and university staff. After all, we are ‘The University’.