This week academics and university staff across the UK have gone on strike for the second time in 24 months. Members of the University and College Union – UCU – are striking from November 25th until December 4th over two main areas: i) pensions and ii) pay and working conditions. The former action follows on from the massive strike action taken by UCU over pensions in early 2018. That strike – which at the time was the largest ever in higher education – resulted in the scrapping of major proposed changes to the “defined benefit” pensions scheme for university staff. Strike action is being taken again now because employers and USS (the pension fund) insist that there still should be further increases to pension contributions, which the union’s pension representatives dispute.
The second component of the 2019 focuses on pay and working conditions. Specifically, UCU are fighting problems with pay inequality (including massive gender and BAME pay gaps across the sector), job insecurity, ballooning workloads, and real-terms pay reductions. Casualisation is a huge issue in how contemporary universities are run, with many institutions relying on legions of low-paid, short-term staff in junior positions just to keep functioning. Hourly-paid tutors (which will in most cases be postgraduate students) may be paid on rates that haven’t changed for over a decade, while salaried staff have seen pay increases that have still fallen well short of inflation. All of this has happened in a context of increasing student numbers, rising student fees, and teaching, supervision, and administrative duties multiplying.
As a network that was set up to support early career researchers, a number of these issues – if not all – are hugely important to the ECHR. Fighting a system where precarious contracts, unequal pay, and unmanageable workloads are the norm is absolutely vital, and applies not just to the UK, but to the worldwide education sector. Many of our members are foregoing pay this week or next to stand on picket lines in the rain (mostly rain), conduct teachouts, and spread awareness about the reasons for the strike. UCU members are also conducting a “digital” picket and not tweeting about any of their research or usual duties.
Among the ECHR, we also have many people who support the strike, but can’t take part for a range of important reasons. Some of our members are at institutions that did not meet the ballot cut-off to strike, and so cannot take part (this was set at 50% staff turnout by a controversial UK government bill in 2016). Some of our members are in the union, but cannot afford to strike. Finally, some of our members cannot strike because they can’t even afford to be in the union in the first place. Together, though, we support UCU in their actions and their demands for positive change in the university.
For more information about the UCU strike, see: