Last week saw the conclusion of an eight-day long strike, undertaken by lecturers and staff from 60 universities across the UK. Since 2018 there has been growing unrest from members of the University and College Union (UCU) over various threats to their careers, pensions and job security. I sat down with a PhD student who downed their pen, picked up the picket and joined the front line of the action, to understand the wider implications of the recent disputes. They revealed their opinion on what they describe as the shocking conditions facing those employed in higher education. The interviewee wished to remain anonymous.
This is the second time since Easter of 2018 that the UCU have announced strike actions. This was the first opportunity for the interviewee to actively engage with fellow colleagues.
“Principally, I joined [the UCU]because I have seen the working conditions of many colleagues in my department deteriorating. I have seen members of staff at the point of burn-out over the last few years because they are rushing to meet impossible deadlines, which means that they work excessive unpaid hours. I’ve actually seen members of staff, junior and senior academics, crying in their offices. They’ve asked for support but get told there’s no money for new staff, even though the University found money for a centenary building and for the previous Vice-Chancellor to have a chauffeur.”
The strikes lasted for eight working days, yet most of the striking staff spent their time outside University buildings and on campus holding picket signs and forming the notional ‘picket line’.
“I stood on the picket lines most days, trying to inform students why their education suffers when academic staff aren’t treated fairly, trying to get students to sign the petition for the VC to engage with the reasons for the strike and just generally supporting striking members of staff. I also worked off-campus, which is a symbolic form of protest. […] the more I spoke to staff on the pickets, the more I realised that this was the bleak future facing me too if we didn’t act now.”
When asked about how these strikes compare to those in 2018, they thought it may be easier for students to understand now. This owes to the issues being related to “workload overload, casualisation and the gender pay gap”. There are increasing concerns to the increasing difficulty to secure job contracts lasting more than 12 months. As a result, career planning and job security are in jeopardy.
I also asked how receptive students have been to this latest round of protests, following an open vote held by the Students’ Union (SUSU) on whether to support the strikes or not. Participating students voted largely to support the strikes.
“Students I spoke with were really supportive of the strike. I think they understood that striking was a last resort. It is, of course, frustrating to have a class cancelled but I found that students were more likely to place the blame at the University’s door for allowing this situation to arise. It was real boost to see SUSU vote to support the strike at its AGM and to actually have students join us on the picket lines.”
The increasing frequency of short-term contracts, combined with pressures over on pension contributions, have created an atmosphere not conducive to research nor to future career planning.
“On paper, it should be an amazing career. You’re in a very privileged position because you get to do the research you love but there’s such little time given to do actual research nowadays. I think it definitely has affected postgraduates’ thinking about the future. That’s why so many have backed the strikes. Ultimately, it’s our future that is on the line if we don’t take action now.
“(…) they’re [academics] faced with the choice of working 60-hour weeks, damaging their mental health and putting their personal lives on hold or a less-rewarding job where the work-life balance is actually manageable. That’s what’s at stake.”
The PhD student also expressed their concern over the University’s handling of the situation. This reflects, what they believe to be, the wider problem within education facing staff and students alike.
“University of Southampton is trying to punish staff by docking their pay in one go before Christmas rather than spreading it out, like other universities. The more cruelly they behave, the further away I see a resolution.
“I think the resolution is for universities to actually listen to their staff on this and stop treating an education like a transaction because students also suffer when staff are treated badly. Staff wouldn’t be picketing in the cold and the rain, giving up nearly half a month’s pay if they weren’t serious.”
I also contacted the Vice Chancellor’s office for comment on the deteriorating work-place environment of his own university and if he could offer an explanation as to how conditions have fallen this far. I was provided a quote by his press office:
We care deeply about the well-being of all our staff and in addition to support from their line manager, anyone who experiences stress can receive advice and support from our employee assistance helpline 24 hours a day.
“Matters […] can only be resolved at a national level.
“The industrial action took place in November and December and the University will apply the deductions in the first payroll after the strikes finished which is normal practice. The University has decided in the first instance that it will not withhold pay for partial performance during the current period of action short of strike.”
As for a resolution, the UCU are committed to maintaining ‘action short of a strike’ until further notice. Following no clear resolution to this recent bout of strikes, it would not be a surprise to see further strikes announced for the Spring semester. A repeat of 2018 would be likely, with industrial action deeply affecting mid-to-end of term assignments and exams.
Overall, the interviewee just wishes to continue doing a job they enjoy. But, at what cost?
“I love my research, I really do, but I don’t know if I’m prepared to wreck the rest of my life to pursue it.”