SOAPBOX: Why university staff are striking…

Dominic Bryan, is a Professor at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. You can follow him on Twitter.

Staff in Northern Ireland at Queen’s University, the University of Ulster and the Open University, myself included, are on strike again. Staff at Universities all over the UK are on strike again. This is the second time in a year and the third time in three years. It is utterly frustrating that we are back in this position. On the one hand, I know this is a battle that we will struggle to win and that the public tend to see us as a privileged group. On the other hand, working conditions, pay and pensions have been put under such desperate strain by our employers who use the market place to put pressure on its workforce.

To understand why predominantly ‘white-collar workers’ have felt the need to do this we have to understand what has been done to the Higher Education system. Rather than seeing Higher Education as a social good (economic and social) it has been made part of a market place, with student fees (supported by loans), a massive range of metrics upon which staff and institutions are judged, and competitive league tables pitting University against University for students (customers) and research funding. Under this pressure the University have become fiscally conservative (some of them are super rich, others relatively rich, whilst some struggle) and their control of finances concentrates on increasing student numbers, decreasing staff numbers and decreasing the cost of staff.

The direction of the modern UK University is thus set. Student numbers become paramount leading, in some institutions, to the practice of ‘unconditional offers’ for courses desperate to keep numbers high. Universities are investing in campuses around the world to place themselves in the global market. Research has been directed to projects with high social and economic impact. Attractive new-buildings have improved the campuses, relationships with industry and private investors have become a key part of strategies, and Universities invest in courses that will sustain high numbers. Not all of these things are bad, but they provide a problematic context. Spending on staff has not been a priority.

Throughout all of this the pay and conditions have suffered. There has been a significant increase in casualised labour, paid by the hour, to cover a range of teaching. With increased numbers of people studying and obtaining PhD’s (a good thing) there are plenty of highly qualified people forced to take precarious work. They are cheap and easy to let go. They do the work that deserves a secure contract and protection but have only a moderate chance of finding it. Add to this, lots of evidence of gender inequality in terms of pay and promotion. Whilst many Universities and staff are trying hard to make a difference, through the excellent SWAN initiative, there is still a long way to go. And workloads for all staff have been getting more problematic. For many of us a working week of around 50 hours is not unusual, sometimes working 6/7 days a week, and crucially the institutions are very poor at controlling the flow of work.

Then there is the market pressure placed on those in full time contracts. Since 2008 we have been annually offered no increase in pay or an increase below inflation. After 12 years staff are between 15-20% worse off. And within this context they also tried to alter the staff pension scheme (USS) demanding that staff pay more in, substantially reducing their benefits, and offering new staff inferior pension provision. This why our Union, UCU, has designated ‘four fights‘ in the strike.

It is vital remember that within the University there are high paid and low paid staff. It is vital to remember that new academics often spend around 8 years obtaining the qualification necessary for a job and build a mountain of debt in that time. It is vital to remember that some academic related staff work on some considerably lower pay rates. So when a journalists goes for the cheap shot question of asking a more senior academic, like myself, what we get paid (compared to many in society we are, of course, paid well) they are missing the point. We are on strike to make changes to a much wider academic environment in which people are struggling with insecurity, high workloads and decreasing pay.

All of this directly impacts upon students. Staff who lack time are going to produce inferior teaching and care. Student representatives know very well that this fight for a different approach to academic staffing is a fight for students as well, and they are supporting us across the country.

So what do we hear from our Vice-Chancellors and senior managers (who, over the same period, have seen their pay sky-rocket!)? They claim that they are making our institutions ‘sustainable’. They explain that they working within an economic environment that is difficult. And they are right. Running a multi-million £ global institution, that is vital to our economy, is a difficult job. But their strategic decisions to maintain a profitable bottom line involves placing enormous pressure on their staff. How many more years will we be offered a decline in salary? Another 10 years?

It is interesting to note that in the Health Service senior managers become persuaders of Government demanding more funding in the interests of patient and staff. In the public University system, devolved through competing institutions, the management culture conforms to neo-liberal rules and values. There is a lack of radical thinking and an inability to find other ways to finance the greater good provided Higher Education, even though there is a black hole of student debt lying in the Governments finances.

This is why we are on strike. Not because a Professor is badly paid, but because a broken education system is only surviving on dedicated staff working harder for less money. When you see the picket lines outside Universities please look beyond a stereotype of a well-heeled academic and understand what is happening.