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Volume 50 Number 7, February 29, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Interviews with Striking University Staff

Workers' Weekly spoke with two members of staff at the universities of Oxford and Cardiff who are currently on strike, so that they can explain to our readers what is at stake in the struggle and what are the latest developments.

Workers' Weekly: University staff have been in action since 2018 over pensions, pay and conditions. What are the issues and your demands?

Oxford: We are involved in two industrial disputes. One is the Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions dispute, over which we went on strike in 2018 and are in dispute over again now. The second is on pay and pay equality; in other words, the gender and ethnic pay gaps, casualisation, and workloads.

Cardiff: We should perceive the demands of the University and College Union [UCU] in the context of the commercialised university. Britain has been pioneering at the global level in the commercialisation of higher education and the operation of the universities as corporations. Directly related to this is the first demand regarding wages, which in real terms have declined by 20% since the harsh austerity that has been implemented. At the same time, most Vice-Chancellors have increased their salaries, which now range from around half to nearly £1 million. These salaries are not so much a reflection of their high position in the university hierarchy, as of their role as managers in this commercialised system. So, a first demand is related to a significant rise in wages, much higher than the 1.8% offered by the employers, which is below inflation.

A second issue, related to pay inequality, is associated with the gender inequalities: according to the UCU's estimations, the wages of female staff are lower by 16% compared to those of their male counterparts. This issue cannot be disconnected from the wider gender inequalities in society and most workplaces.

Third, workload is among the most urgent issues. The casualisation of industrial relations in the universities has had hugely negative impacts on university workers' living standards. Again according to UCU estimations, a typical week has 50 working hours on average, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. Additionally, the part-time and zero-hour contracts, with no working rights and security, have become a common phenomenon. The significant teaching gaps are filled with these precarious jobs and by PhD researchers, who are treated by the universities as students and not as workers. Characteristically, more than 100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do.

The final issue that initiated the first round of industrial action, back in 2018, is that of the pension system reform, reducing the pensions, increasing the contributions, and pushing university staff towards private solutions.

WW: What are the latest developments?

Oxford: We took eight days of combined strike action on the two disputes in November, and are now in a period of fourteen days of strike action, spread out over a month. Already, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association have agreed to meet us to discuss the pay and equalities dispute, and we will meet Universities UK to discuss pensions.

Cardiff: The latest developments are characterised by the low willingness of the employers' associations to engage with negotiations and offer solutions, despite the third round of strikes.

WW: Can you comment on how this struggle relates to the nature of the university system itself and to safeguarding the future of higher education?

Oxford: This is a strike for the heart and soul of higher education; it as about far more than just pay. The university sector has seen a continuous decline through marketisation in conditions of employment and in the ideals that it is meant to embody. We are trying to draw a line and reverse that.

Cardiff: These deep restructurings have been related to the deepening of the university commercialisation. All of this restructuring has been pursued by the Vice-Chancellors/Managers of the university-corporations in order to achieve fiscal balance and improve their credit risk profile, seeking to borrow with better terms in the international financial markets. This is something that is not viable and we cannot allow to continue, and is an issue that requires serious discussion.

WW: Could you tell us about the support you are receiving from students?

Oxford: The support has been fantastic; the official Oxford Student Union is in support of us, and there are numerous other spontaneous groupings of undergraduate and graduate students in support of our action.

Cardiff: Although they are affected by the strikes, most students have been supporting the strike action of the university staff. And this support has been increasing from one round of strikes to another. This is impressive, as, considering the recent student mobilisation in the early-2010s against the increase of tuition fees, it shows that the student movement is still developing and can play a crucial role. Only by connecting the struggles of university staff with the student movement, against a common target, the commercialisation of higher education, can the university movement be more effective and win.

WW: How have things been going locally, at your pickets, meetings, rallies and other actions?

Oxford: Excellent, pickets have been growing day by day, and our rallies have brought together unions and movements from the broader region.

Cardiff: Pickets and rallies have been lively in most of the university campuses across the country, despite the expectations of the employers that entering the third round of strike action, the university staff would start getting tired in terms of mobilisation and participation in the industrial action. The total number of 36 days of strike action in two years is impressive, and delivers the message that staff remain determined to win.

WW: Would you like to say something in conclusion?

Oxford: This strike has huge importance for the future of universities. The last round of strike action happened in the shadow of a general election, and the possibility of a transformative government. We are now in a different place, and must find new ways of resisting the managed decline of our conditions of employment.

Cardiff: Deepening the level of disruption; connecting with students; integrating professional services staff; getting in touch with other parts of the society in struggle, such as the Royal Mail workers: these are all significant in order to achieve our aims. Targeting the restructuring at the core of university commercialisation is crucial.


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