BY HANK REICHMAN
College and university faculty in the United Kingdom began a two-day strike today against the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are taking action after talks to resolve a dispute over a 1.1% pay offer collapsed last week. The UCU said the value of university staff pay had declined in real terms by 14.5% since 2009. The union is also concerned about the increasingly insecure nature of employment in universities, with 75,000 staff on temporary contracts, and the continuing gender inequality in pay, with a male member of staff earning on average 12.6% more than a female one.
The UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, dismissed the 1.1% pay offer as “an insult” in the context of university vice-chancellors receiving a 5.1% increase in pay and benefits last year.
“Members have made it clear that they won’t tolerate a continued squeeze on their income, pay inequality and the increasing job insecurity blighting the sector,” she said. “It’s time to invest properly in the teachers, researchers and administrators who are the backbone of our universities. Industrial action which impacts on students is never taken lightly, but members feel that they have been left with no alternative. If the employers wish to see a swift end to this dispute and avoid further disruption they need to come back to the table with a much improved offer.”
The UCU, formed in 2006 from the merger of two academic faculty and staff unions, has about 116,000 members and is the largest higher education union in the world. It represents researchers and teaching staff as well as “permanent” lecturers. In an opinion piece published in The Guardian, lecturer Nina Power wrItes,
UCU is also highlighting the massive rise in the proportion of university staff on insecure contracts – fixed term and zero-hours – who have little security but on whom universities depend to do much of the teaching, marking and admin: 49% are on these contracts.
The campaign group, Fighting Against Casualisation in Education, points out: “While casualisation is a scandal across the board, it disproportionately affects women and people of colour … TUC reports also showed that women and people of colour were disproportionately employed on casual contracts. This has created issues around access to maternity care and sick leave, the ability to secure a tenancy or mortgage, and compounds issues around promotion and career progression for women.”
As well as the two-day strike, protests are planned in cities around the UK, with rallies in Belfast, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, among others. The UCU warns that further action in coming weeks could disrupt graduation ceremonies, open days and the university clearing process. There are also plans for a boycott of the setting and marking of students’ work to begin in the autumn.
The current fee regime, the increasing pressure on part-time and zero-hours staff, not to mention on the many PhD students paid hourly for teaching and marking work that vastly exceeds the wages received, makes it easy for students to see themselves reflected in those who teach them. There are no more ivory towers, though vice-chancellors may dream of buying one for themselves. As students and lecturers can equally see, there’s only precarity and debt for the vast majority, both inside and outside the academy.
Ensuring the quality of the UK’s higher education provision, of questioning and challenging preconceived ideas, of introducing students to concepts that will change their mind and life, is at the heart of what we university lecturers do. But we must be allowed to get to the heart of our subjects, without students feeling like consumers and lecturers feeling overworked and undervalued. The university is not a market – not everything should be.
These strikes will be disruptive for a reason: things cannot go on as they are. The contemporary university is a highly unbalanced and unfair place, with casualised workers bearing the brunt of the labour but the least amount of pay or security.
Another UK union, Unite, which has about 12,000 members in the higher education sector, said it was consulting on the possibility of joining the action. A ballot closes on 6 June. The Unite national officer, Mike McCartney, said: “We are calling on Unite members to reject the offer on the table. They have seen their pay slashed over recent years, while many university bosses are raking in more than the prime minister.”
All this will sound familiar to faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities. Clearly the challenges posed by the expanding corporatization and privatization in higher education know no national boundaries, nor do the methods we must employ to combat them. For we are One Faculty!