Strike action at universities prove divisive

After last year’s prolonged country-wide staff strikes, few are delighted by the prospect of a repeat in the ongoing saga of disputes between university staff and their employers. However, that certainly seems to be on the cards, as two separate ballots saw 43 and 56 universities respectfully pass the 50% turnout threshold for strike action. 79% of voting members of the Union backed striking over pensions, and 74% voted striking over pay, casualisation, equality and workload. 

A recent study released by the University and Colleges Employers Association shows that staff pay has plummeted by at least 17% in real terms since 2009. Unpaid overtime, temporary contracts and an enduring gender pay gap are among other sources of frustration, and staff feel that despite having raised these concerns University employers have not done enough to resolve the ever-worsening state of affairs. 

“We understand and share the concerns around both pay and pensions,” a UCL spokesperson announced, but caveated that “the UK higher education sector is wrestling with some really difficult issues of affordability and intergenerational fairness. It remains critical that university finances remain sustainable in the long term.” 

Gavin Brackley, a final year UCL student, commented that “It’s frustrating for all involved, but of course those who are so invested in educating future generations and further pioneering research have just as much – if not more – of a right to fair pay and good pensions as the next person!”

The UCL branch of UCU tweeted, “You prioritise investing in everything except your staff” and said that the Universities has broken the “unspoken contract” that both respected educators and facilitated education. 

SOAS university, renowned for its political activism and left wing leanings, is a conspicuous absence from the list of universities which passed the turnout threshold. 

Staff strikes at SOAS were particularly divisive last year with a controversial hard picket that saw tempers flare amongst students and staff and even instances of injury. There was a strongly attended vote of no confidence in the Students’ Union, British Museum properties on Russell Square were occupied for a number of days, and a petition asking for compensation to be given to students who had been affected by the strikes sparked popular debate. 

“I supported the actual strike but I don’t support the enforcing measures of the students… I should still be allowed to print off things and not be obstructed in doing so, the point was to lose my lecture time and not my ability to function as a student,” one student, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented in regard to the picket lines. 

Edward Shawe-Taylor, a fourth year student at SOAS, said: “I supported the strikes, I could see why teachers were doing it and why it was important so I respected that. The exams and coursework were fairly assessed given the way the strikes were affecting us…”

On the other hand, he criticised the “irritating dialogue” and lack of clarity as to why attending non-striking teachers’ classes was disparaged, despite non-striking teachers having good explanations for not striking and equal right to non-participation. “This thing of solidarity was banded around a lot…” he concluded, “You’d just hear the word solidarity in that context and think right, solidarity, what a stupid thing for me to suggest.” 

Another student expressed surprise that SOAS was not on the list, but also a measure of relief:

“I really hope I get to have lectures because… I need to study,” he said. “Strike action genuinely ruined my second year.” 

Meanwhile the IWGB (Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain) has announced the “biggest strike of outsourced workers in UK higher education” at UCL on the November 19. It remains to be seen whether the two campaigns will coordinate. 

Photography Credit: Emma Halahan

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