Members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) at Staffordshire and Keele universities took part in a national strike on Friday the 25 of November.
This was the second day of action, staff also came out on the 24 November, and there will be another strike on the 30 November, including a rally in London.
The strike saw 70,000 teaching staff at 150 universities taking action on a range of issues including pay, pensions and working conditions.
Professor Sean O’Connell, UCU branch president at University College Belfast told the Independent that thanks to the high fees paid by students, universities were “awash with cash” yet management had been “driving down real terms staff pay for 15 years”. A 35% cut to pensions was, he said, a “cynical” move that is “rapidly making working in higher education a much less attractive prospect”.
Figures provided by the UCU show that the UK university sector generated a record income of £41.1bn last year, with vice chancellors at the 150 strike hit universities earning a collective £45mn.
Academic staff have been offered a 3% pay rise following a decade of below inflation pay rises, many are doing the equivalent of two days unpaid work to manage the demands made on them and are on insecure temporary contracts.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said “University staff are taking the biggest strike action in the history of higher education. They have had enough of falling pay, pension cuts and gig-economy working conditions – all whilst vice-chancellors enjoy lottery win salaries and live it up in their grace and favour mansions”.
UCU members at Staffordshire University formed picket lines at the entrances on College Road and Leek Road, they also picketed outside the university’s flagship Catalyst building, opened last year at a cost of £40mn.
Alex, a UCU member at Staffs said, “the key fights equality, casual contracts, pay and workloads”. He went on to say that universities were relying too much on casual contracts to the detriment of staff.
Strikers are concerned about cuts to support services for students, some also spoke about feeling intimidated by the behaviour of university security staff.
Jamie, an associate lecturer at Staffs said, “the current situation”, is very difficult for new academics, adding that the hours for each he is paid do not reflect the workload. He was “being paid for an 18.5 hour contract and working something like 35 hours a week”, as well as studying for his PHD.
The UCU strike is part of similar actions that have seen rail staff, postal workers, nurses, and others stage walk outs.
Despite the disruption to their studies it has caused, the strike action by UCU has been supported by students.
National Union of Students Vice President Higher Education Chloe Field said students supported the strike because they understood that staff working conditions were their learning conditions “and for more than a decade both have come under attack from a sector that puts profits above education”. Adding that “Staff work hard to deliver a world-class experience for students, but more and more are struggling under the pressures of increased workloads, falling pay, cuts to their pensions and insecure work. Universities and employers should agree to UCU’s demands”.
Common themes in all the strikes are attempts by management to erode workers’ rights and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. Several strikers spoke about not being able to heat their homes or pay other bills despite working full time.
UCU members at Keele also took part in strike action, in addition to the ‘four fights’ outlines by the union nationally, members are also striking over pension rights – a dispute that has been in progress since 2018.
Speaking about the national strike Jo Grady said “Staff are burnt out, but they are fighting back, and they will bring the whole sector to a standstill. Vice-chancellors only have themselves to blame. Their woeful leadership has led to the biggest vote for strike action ever in our sector”.
She went on to say “concerns of staff are addressed with urgency. But the overpaid vice-chancellors killing our sector should be under no illusion: 70,000 dedicated university workers are ready to take even bigger action in the New Year”.