Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 53 Number 27, September 23, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Important Struggles for the Future of Education

Academic Year Begins with Further University Strikes

In their latest round of action over pay and working conditions so as to safeguard the future of higher education, university staff across the country are set to strike for five consecutive days from September 25 to 29.


UCU strike at Goldsmiths, November 2019

"The dispute centres on low pay and working conditions. Employer body, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), has imposed a pay award for 23/24 worth just 5% for most UCU members, even though they overwhelmingly voted to reject it. UCU is also demanding action on gig-economy employment practices and high workloads," writes the University and College Union (UCU) [1].

The UCU has agreed to a joint review of sector finances alongside the UCEA. According to research by the union, the higher education sector made more money than ever last year, yet the claim of employees fell to a record low.

Nationwide strike ballots at 143 universities also began on September 19, following the rejection of the 5% offer. This is the third such ballot this year. As the union explains, a successful ballot will renew the strike mandate into 2024 [2].

The union also points out that lecturers' actions have forced employers to negotiate over workloads and job security for the first time.

Meanwhile, the UCU has ended its marking and assessment boycott, which had been ongoing since April 20.


Photo: Getty Images

Covering all marking and assessment at 145 universities, the boycott had been met by up to 100% of pay being deducted from participating staff at a number of institutions. It was pointed out that this disproportionate, punitive, and probably illegal response by management was an aggressive tactic aimed at intimidating workers into backing down. [3]

The University of Sheffield staff will strike for ten days from September 18-29 in dispute over this pay docking following the boycott.

UCU regional official Julie Kelley said: "The brutal pay docking regime Sheffield's management is enforcing means a staff member with a single unmarked essay could lose a month's wages. Attacking staff like this only adds fuel to the fire and will do nothing to bring this dispute to an end. Sheffield needs to stop the pay docking and call on UCEA to re-enter negotiations." [4]

In a separate development, the University of Brighton announced in May its plans to cut over a hundred staff members, resulting in a significant reduction in lecturers across various subjects, citing "cost savings" of £17.9m, despite having spent more than £50m on building projects in the past two years. Local UCU members voted to take industrial action, and the university's higher education committee has now voted for the university to be greylisted, which is the union's ultimate sanction. The UCU is asking its members, other trade unions, labour movement organisations and the international academic community to support its members at Brighton by not applying for advertised jobs, not speaking at or organising conferences outside of contract, not accepting new positions as visiting professors or researchers, not accepting invitations to write for academic journals, not accepting new contracts as external examiners for taught courses, and refusing to collaborate on new research projects outside of contract. [5]

Another example typifies the assault on academic standards, on academic staff and overall the philistinism of the authorities which dictate what goes, without reference to the staff and students concerned. The University of Chichester unilaterally and arbitrarily closed down the Masters by Research (MRes) course on the History of Africa and the African Diaspora, followed a few weeks later by dismissing the Professor of Africa and the African Diaspora, Professor Hakim Adi. The university also dismissed a colleague of Professor Adi, Dr Dion Georgiu. A vigorous campaign has been launched by students and colleagues and by wide sections of concerned people, in the midst of disinformation and high-handedness from the University [6]. A letter to the press from ten MRes graduates points out: "As MRes graduates, spreading this disinformation does a disservice to our discipline, to the culmination of our hard work and the work of Professor Hakim Adi. It also jeopardises our ongoing challenge , to uphold the course and the rights of the students and Professor Hakim Adi to fair treatment." As Professor Adi emphasised in an online press conference recently, what the University of Chichester is seeking to accomplish amounts to an attack on all academia.

These attacks are coming in the context of the government's so-called "crackdown on poor quality university courses", announced on July 17 by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. As the Financial Times reported: "Universities in England offering courses with poor employment prospects and high student dropout rates will be subjected to stricter regulatory controls under plans to be unveiled on Monday by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The government will order the Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England, to do more to limit the number of students that universities can recruit on to certain courses. The prime minister and education secretary Gillian
Professor Hakim Adi speaking on the History of Africa and the African Diaspora
Keegan will promise a crackdown on 'rip-off degree courses' which leave graduates with inadequate pay and high debts." [7] This is a scandalous attack on education as a whole and the rights and dignity of those lecturers and academic staff who are dedicated to their subjects and their importance for the younger generation. According to the government's logic, the point of degree courses is to fit the graduates with the ability to earn large salaries and pay off the debt incurred while at university. The irony of this can be seen in the present struggles, where "inadequate pay and high debts" is the norm for higher education workers, not to mention the graduates.

The struggle of higher education workers, both academic and support staff, is aimed at recognising and realising the value they add to the economy. They produce highly skilled graduates and postgraduates, contribute to society's cultural level, and contribute to scientific and technological advances. It is a fight for the future of higher education. Education is a right that should serve the people, and academics and workers are fighting for their rights and conditions.

It is to the higher education workers' credit that, by holding the line against imposition and intimidation, they have forced negotiations on certain key issues. Such tactics, attempting to block workers from organising in self-defence, themselves reveal that it is an issue of control over the direction society is headed. Through their stand, university workers are contributing to a new outlook where people can think and act in their own name, allowing them to take control over matters that affect their lives and the general interests of society. Workers' Weekly continues to fully support the university staff and wishes them every success in their actions.

Notes
1. "Start of university term to be hit with five days of UK-wide strikes," UCU, 6 September 2023
https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/13171/Start-of-university-term-to-be-hit-with-five-days-of-UK-wide-strikes
2. "Date set for university strike ballot," UCU, 11 September 2023
https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/13178/Date-set-for-university-strike-ballot
3. "University Staff to Strike against Arbitrary Full Pay Docking," Workers' Weekly, June 10, 2023
http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wwie-23/ww23-17/ww23-17-03.htm
4. "Ten days of strikes set to hit the University of Sheffield over pay docking row," UCU, 15 September 2023
https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/13181/Ten-days-of-strikes-set-to-hit-the-University-of-Sheffield-over-pay-docking-row
5. "Start of university term to be hit with five days of UK-wide strikes," UCU, 6 September 2023
https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/13171/Start-of-university-term-to-be-hit-with-five-days-of-UK-wide-strikes
6. For full details of the closure of the course, the sacking of Professor Adi, and the campaign to save the MRes in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora, and Professor Hakim Adi's post at the University of Chichester, see the History Matters website:
https://www.historymatters.online/save-mres-campaign
7. "Rishi Sunak announces crackdown on 'poor quality' university courses", Financial Times, 17 July 2023
https://www.ft.com/content/b287c857-a4e0-4cb1-ab62-eebf91bf20bd


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