Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 53 Number 5, February 11, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

The Future of Education

University Strikes Escalate

Edinburgh - Photo:TheStudent

Two further days of strike action by university staff went ahead this past week after they rejected the employers' pay offer. Over 70,000 staff at all of the 150 universities across the UK took action on February 9 and 10, engaging in pickets and refusing to teach.

The actions follow the ballot where 80% of members of the UCU (University and College Union) voted to reject the latest offer from employers, worth only 5% for most union members. The UCU reports that over 30,000 of its members responded to the online poll which was open for just four days.

The National Union of Students (NUS) backed staff taking the strike action, which impacted on 2.5 million students. The UCU said that university negotiators are "in hiding" and need to engage properly in negations if they want to prevent a further 15 days of strike action from going ahead over the next two months.

The UCU reports: "Despite staff emphatically rejecting the 5% pay award, employers have not yet responded with an improved offer. Employers have also continually failed to address insecure employment practices and workloads, two issues that are central to this dispute. There are over 90,000 university staff on insecure contracts and staff work an average of two extra days unpaid per week."

London - Photo: NSSN

In the contention over pensions, the UCU is demanding that employers revoke the cuts and restore benefits. The package of cuts made last year will see the average member lose 35% of their guaranteed future retirement income. For those at the beginning of their career the losses are in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. This is completely unacceptable.

The UCU notes: "The sector holds more than £44bn in reserves and has a yearly income of over £42bn. Employers have admitted it would cost just 3% of their reserves to settle UCU's pay claim. The highest paid vice-chancellor earned £714,000 in 2021/22. Last week Kay Burley asked for any of the sector's 150 vice-chancellors to be interviewed by her on Sky News and account for the state of higher education. Not one has volunteered."

The strike action of university staff is clearly a component part of the movement to demand that working people must not be made to suffer the burden of the austerity demands of the employers and the state, with its attendant cost-of-living crisis. The stand of the movement of every section of working people can be summed up in the fact that No Means No!

With the UCU members, the actions follow on from their growing struggles of last year. In November, three days of action were held over the course of a week, culminating in the holding of the largest demonstration and rally in the union's history in central London. In fact, there has been a long-running battle to safeguard the future of education by fighting attacks on pay, working conditions and pensions.

The current conditions of economic crisis, wrecking of social programmes and rising inflation have sharpened all of the issues further. "In the pay and working conditions dispute," wrote the UCU in November, "the union's demands include a meaningful pay rise to deal with the cost-of-living crisis as well as action to end the use of insecure contracts and deal with dangerously high workloads. Employers imposed a pay rise worth just 3% this year following over a decade of below inflation pay awards. On average university staff do two days additional work unpaid per week, whilst a third of academic staff are on some form of temporary contract."

The union continued: "In the pension dispute, UCU is demanding employers revoke the cuts and restore benefits. The package of cuts made earlier this year will see the average member lose 35% from their guaranteed future retirement income. For those at the beginning of their careers the losses are in the hundreds of thousands of pounds."

"The UK university sector generated record income of £41.1bn last year with the 150 vice-chancellors facing action collectively earning an estimated £45 million," the UCU noted, hitting at the disinformation over so-called affordability. UCU said that the sector can more than afford to meet staff demands.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said of the present action: "It is no surprise that university staff have overwhelmingly rejected a low-ball 5% offer from employers, this is a huge real-terms pay cut that would leave our members worse off. We are striking for 48 hours this week and will take escalating action until we get a fair deal."

Bristol - Photo: Naz Masoumi

Dr Grady added: "We have repeatedly asked bosses to explain why they refuse to deal with the issues that blight higher education. Yet they refuse to publicly justify their position. We know the bosses are in hiding because their position is indefensible."

NUS vice-president for higher education Chloe Field said: "The vice-chancellors in charge of our universities would rather see students face disruption on a scale we have never seen before than pay staff what they are worth. Every day of teaching we lose is completely the fault of vice-chancellors who refuse to pay their staff properly."

Chloe Field has always emphasised that students stand in solidarity with university staff going on strike. At the time of the November actions, she was quoted as saying: "We have always been clear that staff working conditions are students' learning conditions, and for more than a decade both have come under attack from a sector that puts profits above education. 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. We exist in the same system and our struggles are inextricably linked. Only by coming together and showing solidarity with each other can we achieve the real and lasting change we want for everyone who works and studies in this country."

Enough Is Enough rally, Liverpool - Photo: Liverpool Echo

As Workers' Weekly has pointed out throughout this struggle [1], imposition and refusal to negotiate aims to disrupt the formation of an outlook that recognises that higher education workers, whether academic or support staff, add huge value to the economy. The work done by university staff produces highly skilled graduates and postgraduates with a massive productive capacity, and in a more general sense contributes to the cultural level of society; the universities themselves give rise to scientific and technological advances. It is important that this value is recognised. Not only is it not recognised, it is not realised; that is, its value is not paid for by those that utilise it. Enterprises, particularly big business, benefit directly through their highly-educated workforce and the science and technology they employ, for which they do not pay. This is coming to head particularly now where, in conditions of permanent and all-round crisis, "affordability" is being used a smokescreen for outright wrecking of social programmes.

Economic issues are intimately connected with the nature of the university system itself and what higher education is for. Education is a right and should serve the people. Academics and higher education workers in struggle for their rights and conditions are fighting for the rights of all. It is an issue of control over the direction society is headed, as an educated population is key to a new direction of the economy and democracy. In this sense the workers and academics are forming the new outlook where people can think and act in their own name. This is the pathway opening for the workers to take control over their lives and destiny and constituting themselves as the authority.

As the UCU says, "workers everywhere are rising up and saying enough is enough." Workers' Weekly continues to fully support the university staff and wishes them every success in their actions, in common with all those in action to declare that Enough is Enough!


[1] For coverage and analysis over the course of the dispute, see:

"UCU Members at 27 Universities Stage Five-Day Strike", Workers' Weekly, April 2, 2022
"University Staff Continue their Struggle", Workers' Weekly, March 26, 2022
"Interviews with Striking University Staff", Workers' Weekly, February 29, 2020
"University Lecturers Embark on 14 Days of Strikes to Persist in and Widen their Struggle", Workers' Weekly, February 22, 2020
"University Lecturers Persist in and Widen the Struggle in Defence of Pensions and to Safeguard the Future of Higher Education", Workers' Weekly, February 8, 2020
"University Lecturers Strike to Defend their Pension Rights and Safeguard Higher Education", Workers' Weekly, April 7, 2018


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