As students occupy and vice-chancellors U-turn during a 14-day strike across UK universities against cuts to pensions, 6 lecturers, professors and undergraduates share strike stories of exploitation, marketisation and mobilisation
Sophie Smith, Associate Professor of Political Theory, University of Oxford
The ongoing strike at many of Britain’s universities is the largest ever seen in UK Higher Education. It seems to be working. Just yesterday, the Vice Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge issued statements reversing their positions on the risk appropriate for the Universities Superannuation Scheme, conceding that the very deal over which we are striking requires significant revision. In a conciliatory message to Cambridge staff, Stephen Toope called for ‘a solution that recognises the deep frustration felt by staff and maintains our appeal for scholars from around the world’. In Oxford, Louise Richardson backed down from what appeared to many to be stubborn support for Universities UK, the body responsible for imposing these pension reforms. The Council, Oxford’s executive body, admitted that ‘this issue should have been handled better’.
How did this happen? Any explanation has to include the contributions of students. In Oxford and across the country undergraduates and graduate students have been organising teach-ins, rallies and flyering; they have made placards, written poems and stood alongside us in the snow. Many of them clearly see the logic that connects their increasing fees to our threatened pensions, and are angry and mobilised. The University and College Union (UCU) who called the strike has not always had the best relationship with students, preferring to keep the struggle of lecturers separate from that of those they teach.
2010 made that difficult. Many of us who are now on strike were involved in protests and occupations against the tripling of tuition fees. None of us would have had to pay the fees, but we knew what it would mean for higher education in this country. This has created a new generation of UCU members, and in turn produced the possibility of a new kind of solidarity between students and staff. Our common cause with students is obvious to us: undergraduates, graduates, early career researchers, and lecturers at the start of their contracts are together at the sharp end of the marketisation of British academia. In 2010, some felt disappointed that UCU and indeed lecturers more broadly did not do more and more quickly. But we also learned what was possible when that cooperation was forthcoming. In 2018, many of us carry those lessons with us: about the importance of horizontal rather than vertical organisation, about the need to align our struggles, and about what it means to organise effectively in the age of social media.
For many, the standout moment from the Oxford strikes will no doubt be the members of Congregation exiting the Sheldonian en masse on 6th March. But for me, it was the speech given by Neha Shah, an undergraduate and tireless organiser, at Oxford’s first rally in support of the strike. More than any of the other speakers, mainly her seniors and many more battle-scarred, she was able to tell us just what was at stake: not just pensions, not just the university, but education as a good in itself.
Christienna Fryar, Lecturer in the History of Slavery and Unfree Labour, University of Liverpool
When I moved to the UK last summer from the United States to begin a lectureship at the University of Liverpool, I didn’t expect to be on strike six months in. But then I also hadn’t expected the relentlessness of working conditions here, worse than any I’d experienced in the US. Conditions vary at different institutions, but there are some shared characteristics across much of UK higher education that drive up workload relentlessly: contracts with few if any stated limits to work and no teaching cap; the demands of providing a single honours degree; and insufficient consideration of how to establish work conditions that allow staff to thrive as creative teachers and researchers. Instead, everything from timetables to teaching load to bureaucracy seems geared to generating exhaustion, leaving little space for the thought and deliberation necessary to teach university students well.
More to the point, this is a university culture in which administrations demand levels of trust from employees – for instance, to value pension funds accurately and through a transparent process – that they refuse to grant in return. Even cherished traditions like double marking, moderation, or external review of exam questions are mechanisms of suspicion. They ramp up workload, while also suggesting that lecturers can’t write their own exam questions or mark assignments without supervision. Departments also demand high degrees of conformity of teaching methods and assessment, closing off the full scope of pedagogical innovation and forcing lecturers to ignore decades of best practice. In this evisceration of my pedagogical freedom, I’ve lost significant (and in some cases, total) control over the assignments that I give, both in form and quantity, and of my teaching methods. I can no longer truly experiment with innovative pedagogies.
These things stand out to me so clearly because I have lost them in under a year. But they’re also the barely veiled subtext to the pension fight, fueling the anger, resentment, and ultimately amazing resolve that we’re witnessing on both virtual and real picket lines in the third week of the strike.
Mark Pendleton, Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield, historian, and an editor of History Workshop Journal.
Pensions are the reason that university staff across UK universities are on strike. The lack of a secure future is something I feel keenly despite having the relative security of a permanent job. I am forty years old, do not own a house, have significant student debt and, like many of the 1 in 4 UK academics who is a migrant worker, am thousands of pounds out of pocket for visa fees I had to pay to the Home Office to work here, all without support from my employer. The prospect of a decent pension is about the only thing that keeps me coming into work every day!
But while we’re striking over pensions this time, the issue is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. UK universities, like my institution, increasingly talk about equality and diversity, holding up their Athena Swan and Stonewall Top 100 Employer Awards as evidence of their commitment to fairness, but their current operations are built on deep inequalities. The biggest of these is the vast amounts of unpaid labour extracted from both the casual workers doing a large proportion of teaching and those on more permanent contracts who are buried in administration and unrealistic expectations around productivity. To give one example, I completed an employer-mandated time allocation survey a couple of months ago, which amounted to 60 hours of work for the week. My contract is for 35, so I was only paid for 60% of the work I did that week, which is not unusual. And within that 60 total, the number of hours I spent on scholarship, including keeping up with the latest historical research, was precisely zero. I am not alone here; academics across the UK are being worked into the ground by managerialism, which leaves little time for us to develop our teaching and research; the reasons that many of us entered the profession.
Unfair processes allow our bosses to claim excessive expenses (like Sheffield vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett’s £3000 luxury hotel stay in Singapore), but deny workers access to basics, such as covering extortionate visa fees for international colleagues.
The last couple of weeks on the pickets at Sheffield have been exciting. For the first time in my working life in the UK, it feels like the conversation around what and who makes up the university is beginning to shift, with questions of fairness and justice at the heart of those conversations. Students have been strongly in support of our actions. At Sheffield through a fantastic ‘roving picket’ has brought cheer and solidarity to the shivering stationery picket lines and hundreds rallied in the snow in Sheffield last Wednesday to demand our VC step out of his luxury Singapore hotel suite and back a fair pension for university staff. There are signs too that action is working, including with Sheffield backing down from threats of punitive deductions for not rescheduling missed classes. We have the opportunity in this fight not just to win the fair pensions we deserve, but also to change higher education in this country.
Mary Laven, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Cambridge
‘That’s a good cheese toastie; one of the best toasties I’ve had in a long time,’ observes my colleague, a fellow early modernist who happens to be an expert on the history of food. The toasties are indeed tip-top: well-melted cheese, thin slivers of tomato, nicely seasoned and buttery. Best of all, they are hot; a gift of warmth from our student supporters as we stand out in freezing temperatures, battered by wind and snow.
Talking to students on the picket line inevitably takes me back. Growing up in East Kent, I’d witnessed the miners’ strike taking its toll on nearby pit communities. As a fledgling leftie, I chaired a local CND group, went on marches and – with my mother – bruised South African Granny Smiths in the supermarket. Aged 19, I came to this university (to the very buildings where I’m picketing today) to study history. I wasn’t charged for the experience; I didn’t anticipate graduating with large debts; and it seemed only right that I should receive a means-tested maintenance grant from my Local Education Authority. I took all this for granted and – I fear – retreated into a solipsistic cocoon. One of the silver linings of the last year – bleak in so many ways – has been the rise of student activism. ‘Virescit vulnere virtus’ reads one of the more adventurous placards at our picket line: ‘Courage grows from a wound’. Higher education in the UK has been repeatedly wounded; but good things may yet arise from those wounds.
Holly Bracewell, Human, Social and Political Science Undergraduate, University of Cambridge
Yes, the strike is to contest unfair pension cuts that demonstrate an unacceptable disregard for the invaluable work of academics across the country, but that’s not all. The strikes also protest the corporate framework insidiously being imposed upon our education system and this is why student involvement in the strikes is indispensable. ‘Student solidarity’ is about ensuring financial security for our lecturers in their retirement, but ‘student activism’ in this strike acknowledges the wider implications of the commodification of education, which will reduce accessibility and help return higher education to a preserve of elites.
Safeguarding an education system that is a public good, democratically responsive to its members and accessible to all regardless of socio-economic background, is a responsibility that should not fall entirely on the UCU members on strike. As students, we are in a position to work alongside our lecturers in fighting against a continued onslaught of marketisation. Active engagement in the strike is vital, as it shows that this is more than a mere roadblock to the corporate agenda. Solidarity, engagement, and widespread mobilisation show an unwavering rejection of the policies prioritising profit maximisation, which threaten the integrity and accessibility of higher education.
Don’t be complicit, stand with those protesting these regressive ‘reforms’, and help bring about substantive and long-term change!
Anna Hájková, Assistant Professor of Modern European Continental History, University of Warwick
We are in the midst of the mother of all strikes and at Warwick this means business. Since the first day, the picket lines guarding access to campus have been occupied by dozens of colleagues and students, librarians, academics, IT people, undergraduates and graduate students alike. We protest, we talk, we freeze, we sing, and we dance, together. As the union rep at the Warwick history department, I have been heartened to see the strong showing from colleagues: the most hardcore picketers from my department include senior professors and casualised hourly-paid tutors.
The dedication of many of the hourly-paid tutors is humbling. For them, striking often means not being able to pay rent or food, or getting into debt. Of course the strike also means a significant financial loss to permanent staff, but usually we have some reserves. I have consequently been in awe of the committment and good cheer amongst casualised colleagues, some of whom form the backbone of the strike committee. At Warwick, we set up our own internal hardship fund, financed by Warwick UCU and external donations, which has now collected over £8,000. But while this is generous, the longer the strike runs, the emptier the hardship fund will become.
Last Monday, Warwick Anti-Casualisation organised a march to ‘Unitemps’, a temporary employment agency originally founded by Warwick University. In a leak, it was recently revealed that Unitemps had offered their employees to cover for missing workers during the strike. The march delivered a letter protesting Unitemps’ strikebreaking practices and highlighting the chronic exploitation of junior academics in the current university system.
One beautiful and unexpected aspect of the strike is the camaraderie on picket lines. We have time to talk and to bond; we share the same concerns. Suddenly the UK university, often a neoliberal machine exploiting people, is once again an intellectual and humanist home. Together with the Student Staff Solidarity Network, we have created a Free University of Warwick, providing a programme of ‘teach out’ events. On today’s International Working Women’s Day, we will wear red and strike to protest the wage gap between men and women at UK universities. I miss teaching and I miss my students, very much; but the strike has created a chance to debate many issues within universities, from the exploitation of labor to sexism and racism, and illuminated an opportunity to move towards change.