Picket Line Perspectives

Picket Line Perspectives: another university seems possible

On day 7 of the 8-day UCU strike action over pay, pensions, and poor working conditions, Grace Redhead and Matt Griffin discuss precarity, inequality, outsourcing, and picket line solidarity at UCL 

When setting up our picket line early on a grey November Monday, it was difficult not to feel a sense of déjà vu. We had, after all, picketed this exact spot with many of the same friends and colleagues less than two years ago. The same home-made posters again adorned the doors of our department; our leaflets and signs again denounced our employers’ recalcitrance over the USS pensions issue. 

But this time it’s about more than pensions. The ‘Four Fights’ mantra — pensions, pay inequality, precarity and workload — signals a more holistic approach, a recognition that the battle for the soul of the Higher Education sector cannot be fought on just one front. Anger about pay, working conditions and casualisation that had bubbled under the surface of the 2018 strike are now front and centre. 

As early career historians deeply invested in the health of Higher Education, each of these ‘Four Fights’ means so much to us. They are interlinked and inextricable, symptoms of the profit-driven process of marketisation and cost-cutting that threatens the vitality of the sector. Our circumstances dictate, however, that the problem of precarity is foremost in our minds. 

UCL strike teach-out

Our stories are depressingly familiar: we work across multiple different universities on ‘as-and-when’, insecure, exploitative contracts with no light at the end of the tunnel, reliant on equally insecure non-academic forms of income to make up the shortfall between incomings and outgoings. Along with our fellow Graduate Teaching Associates (or, as we are often belittlingly labelled, ‘Teaching Assistants’), we deliver a vast amount of undergraduate teaching, particularly in the crucial first-year core courses. The vast majority of GTAs are innovative, passionate, empathetic teachers who care deeply about their students. Yet our contracts (if we are lucky enough to have been issued them) state that ‘for the avoidance of doubt at no time will you be an employee’ of the university. So few hours are costed into our workloads that our ‘real’ hourly pay is below the London Living Wage. According to a 2016 UCU report, sector-wide 54% of all academic staff and 49% of all academic teaching staff are on insecure contracts like these.

Strike material

These material conditions shape the education of the students who are paying from their futures to be here. The current industrial action has prompted conversations with undergraduates shocked to learn of how little time is allotted for the preparing their classes and providing feedback on their assessments. Our working conditions are their learning conditions. Moreover, these conditions shape the academy itself, and who is in it. A senior academic crossing a picket line in 2018 told us that ‘people will always want to do PhDs’ – but which people can afford to do them? History departments across the UK are already dominated by white, middle-class researchers and teachers. That will not change while early career academics face years of uncertain work, short-term, part-time contracts, and exploitation. Academia is rapidly becoming a career open only to those who can fall back on their families in the three-month gap between nine-month teaching fellowships. The field of history is immeasurably poorer for this. Any serious attempt to bridge the significant racial, gender and class disparities in Higher Education must grapple with the problem of precarity. 

By making precarity central, the strike has enabled TAs to raise their specific working conditions within their departments and opened up productive conversations with our more senior colleagues on the picket line. There is a consensus that the labour of TAs must be respected, recognising the importance of the undergraduate teaching we conduct. At a bare minimum, if fractional, hourly paid contracts are to be a continuing part of the Higher Education landscape, the hours should be clearly delineated in advance, the hours paid must correspond to the work undertaken and, crucially, research time must also be built in. Without research provision, early career academics are trapped in a vicious cycle. The necessity of taking on teaching and admin-only positions to make ends meet clashes with the ever-greater demands from employers for REF-friendly outputs to boost their league table results. The reliance on underpaid teaching-only contracts makes a mockery of the universities’ oft-stated commitment to ‘research-led teaching.’

As we protest our conditions, we have to guard against our precarity being weaponised against those in even more difficult circumstances. At UCL as well as many other universities, there is a two-tier system where (for example) direct employees may receive up to 26 weeks of pay if they are off sick, while outsourced workers receive no pay for the first three days before they receive £94 a week. Almost 300 of these workers – cleaners, security officers and porters – went on strike in November. Early career researchers are part of this continuum of precarious labour, and yet university administrators frequently cite the issue of early career precarity in arguments against bringing outsourced workers like those at UCL and the University of London in-house. This Wednesday at UCL, the Independent Workers of Great Britain’s UCL branch will join our UCU strikers in a joint demonstration to affirm the value of our collective labour and demand better working conditions.

The universities we work for count on fractured relationships: in which the cleaner silently empties the bin in the seminar room when they want to be with their sick child; in which the lecturer hasn’t had a day off all term but says nothing in case they are never asked back or never promoted; and in which the student thinks, reasonably, that some generous portion of their exorbitant fees must go to their educators, and demands more and better. There is no place for this silence on the picket line.

UCL historians on the picket line

Anger and resentment are, understandably, driving the protests conducted by UCU members and outsourced workers. Yet collective action also opens up space for hope. On the picket line and in teach-outs, in conversations with colleagues and with students, another university feels possible. A university where students are not consumers, and the work of porters, TAs, lecturers, librarians, cleaners, security officers and administrative staff is not a margin that can be shaved for profit. The picket line is a place to imagine another university, where the conditions as well as the content of education are up for discussion. At a teach-out led by casualised GTAs on ‘Historians and the Strike’, which ranged from 1920s Latin America, to the value of research for its own sake in the medieval university, to community resistance in postwar Britain, we concluded that collective action against the odds has overturned institutional injustice time and again.

On the picket line outside UCL’s new £67.4 million student centre, we have started conversations with students about the strike that have turned into discussions of much more. One conversation between two GTAs and two students gathered a small audience as we discussed the relationship between efforts to decolonise the curriculum and the material conditions of the university. As we looked at UCL’s glossy new face, we talked about its self-proclaimed position as ‘London’s Global University’ with its expanding campus in Dubai — even as the mostly migrant, mostly BAME workers who keep its lights on in London are treated as second-class. The students linked this to their week’s reading on geographies of globalization. It had the zing of the best kind of seminar, where through mutual respect and enthusiasm, teachers and students come away thinking differently. As we parted, one student said ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’. And it doesn’t.

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