Today, as a member of the University and College Union (UCU), I have been participating in the 8-day strike action (followed by indefinite Action Short Of a Strike (ASOS)), and have been on the picket line. I hope to blog regularly through the course of the strike – certainly I believe this is a more valid use of free time than using it to catch up on research, which amounts to crossing the #digitalpicketline , which I wish to avoid. A strike means withdrawing one’s labour: in higher education, this can take various forms, including teaching, administration, research, giving papers, visiting conferences, answering endless e-mails, and so on. All those who are striking should avoid doing any of these things on the strike days. I will be picketing every day during the strike except Monday 2 December (when I am meeting with the current head teacher of my former school to talk about a huge history of sexual and other abuse at the institution, as discussed amply elsewhere on the blog). Here are some pictures from the first day of action at City.
The reasons for the strike are clear, and laid out clearly on a page produced by UCU for Cambridge University, but applicable to all the institutions where staff have voted for strike. Our pay (and this applies to all university workers, not just those in academic jobs) has fallen by a massive 20% in real terms over a period of 10 years. There is serious gender inequality in the sector: male university workers hold 23% more secure contracts than women (I work in a department with 8/10 male permanent staff), there is major pay inequality, with the gender pay gap at City at 14.7%, higher than the national HE average. Workloads have become unmanageable, with staff chronically overworked and trying desperately to balance huge demands in terms of teaching, administration, research and more. Many report working at least 50 hours, and often many more, per week, 12 more than what the standard 37.5 hour working week entails. Managements and their representatives continue to heap new tasks on staff, often using spurious justifications of the need to respond to students’ needs. Furthermore, there has been a marked increase in precarity across the sector, with universities having become the second most casualised sector of the economy (after hospitality). Already in 2016, a UCU report showed that 54% of academic staff were on precarious contracts (temporary or otherwise insecure). This year, another UCU report found 70% of 49,000 researchers in the sector on fixed-term contracts, as are 37,000 teaching staff, mostly on hourly contracts, and a further 71,000 teachers categorised as ‘atypical academics’, on the lowest contract levels, with few employment rights. Furthermore, following the 2018 strike, universities have continued to ignore evidence of an independent review on the pension scheme (USS) and push through a proposal worsening the situation for us.
The issue of precarity is related to that of gender parity. In a society where women still undertake the majority of the burden of childcare and other domestic responsibilities, many are placed in near-impossible situations when faced with the need to keep relocating to different places to take on temporary contracts, or even shuttle between locations to fulfil a variety of part-time contracts simply to make enough of an income for basic needs. To secure a permanent contract, many institutions will only consider those with a stream of journal articles or equivalent outputs which they think will be considered 4* in the Research Excellence Framework or REF (on this, see this blog from the last strike). This is not remotely feasible for those juggling part-time jobs, travel, childcare and domestic responsibilities, unless they practically work themselves to death.
I will endeavour to blog and collate further information on these issues during the course of the strike. But as The Guardian have set forth in an excellent editorial, this is not simply a short-term strike about pay, pensions, etc., but a concerted action by so many who have been driven to exasperation by what higher education has become, so far from many of the ideals which are supposed to drive it.
It is also an opportunity for those who profess in their work to adhere to certain values (or, in some cases, find it an appropriate career move) to demonstrate their commitment through action. It is one thing to tick the right boxes in one’s writings on gender equality (and fighting other discrimination based upon ethnicity, class, etc.), another thing to actually take the appropriate action on this basis. Strike action matters considerably more than virtue-signalling.
Increasingly we have seen the consequences of an academic culture which views the student as a ‘consumer’ (which, from a management perspective, means simply a source of revenue), increasing use of all types of metrics which are ruthlessly applied to discipline and demean academic workers, degradation of the values of the humanities, critical thinking, and so on, which are so fundamental to the very concept of the university, in favour of narrowly focused technical and vocational education, and a reduction in status of academics, compared to bloated layers of management, often made up of those with relatively undistinguished academic careers of their own.
We do not, and should not, simply produce a ‘product’, a commodity to be bought on the open market, we provide an essential service. Education is a right, and a vital part of any civilised society. Government moves which have shifted the burden of the cost of higher education from the taxpayer (where it belongs) to the student, have used this in order to drive a wedge between students and those who teach them, attempting to mobilise students from below to keep academics in line. Happily, a great many students, and the majority of organisations representing them, can see through this, but such rhetoric is used for the purposes of bullying and to justify overwork. One decrease in a department’s National Student Survey (NSS) score (which sometimes can result from just a tiny number of disgruntled students, in smaller departments) can be the catalyst for a whole host of new directives required of already stressed academics.
I would like highlight three important Twitter threads relating to the industrial action, to which I am most grateful to Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach of Oxford University, a medievalist musicologist (a category whose numbers are decreasing all the time, and in which discipline scholars are very rarely able to find employment other than in a select few jobs in the most elite institutions, as historical subjects are deemed less ‘relevant’ than those more directly related to the supposed short-term needs of ‘the industry’).
Read this thread especially on chronic overwork in academia, and how the consequent levels of stress are noticed by insurers, but academic managements often remain oblivious.
Then for those who claim cuts to staff pay reflect economic realities and the like, look at this thread on universities’ reserves, capital expenditure, and the proportion of money actually spent on staff.
I would urge people to read this thread on the reality of precarious employment.
I will always be most grateful for any information provided by others which I can blog (I will be using my Twitter account @drianpace during the course of the industrial action).
Tomorrow I hope to tweet about stress, its debilitating effect upon academics, the toxic culture of overwork, and the types of macho competition it instils in the sector. On other days I will blog about personal reasons for backing the strike over and above the issues raised above, about the decline of essential subjects and approaches to learning, and various else.
I welcome comments on any of this (though not trolling or abuse).