Students! Be angry with your universities, not your striking lecturers
The news that lecturers at the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex are set to strike for 14 days in February and March is likely to hit students very hard.
Understandably, the prospect of missing two weeks worth of lectures and seminars at a crucial time of term, fully conscious of the extortionate amount of money that every minute of contact time costs them, will cause students to feel stressed, frustrated and angry.
Students have every right to feel frustrated and angry, but who exactly these feelings are directed towards is extremely important.
This anger must be directed towards the lecturers’ employers – university bosses – who have continuously refused to negotiate with staff regarding major changes to their pension scheme, and have failed to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.
They have left university staff with no choice but to strike. How else are they meant to get their voices heard and ensure that their working conditions do not continue to deteriorate?
What exactly is happening?
Staff from 74 UK universities will be striking for a total of 14 days, starting on the Thursday 20th February. The number of strike days will escalate each week, culminating in a week-long walkout from 9th-13th March.
UCU members will also be taking what is known as “action short of a strike”, which means doing things like working strictly to contracted hours, not covering for absent colleagues and not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action.
Why are university staff so angry?
Primarily, university staff are angry about changes being made to their pension scheme (The Universities Superannuation Scheme, USS). As a result of these changes, staff will essentially end up paying far more into their pension every month, but will receive tens of thousands of pounds less in retirement.
According to research by First Actuarial, because of the changes to USS, a typical university staff member will pay around £40,000 more into their pension, but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement.
Additionally, staff are frustrated at their stagnating level of pay. According to a report released by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), the pay of university staff has dropped by around 17% in real-terms since 2009.
Recent years have also seen a proliferation of university staff members on precarious contracts, and a significant increase in working hours. A high number of university staff at Sussex and Brighton are employed on temporary, rolling contracts, meaning they cannot be certain how long the university will continue to employ them, and face the prospect of finding themselves out of work with very little warning.
What do university staff want?
Simply, for their employers to negotiate with them properly.
Negotiations are ongoing between UCU and Universities UK, with the aim of reaching an agreement before the strikes begin.
But UCU members like Sam Marsh, one of the five elected national UCU negotiators on the pensions dispute, feel that their employers are yet to make anything like a fair offer: “If they don’t make some kind of move to try and resolve the dispute before we go to strike action then I really despair at the contempt that that shows for students,” he told Forge Press, the University of Sheffield’s student newspaper.
“This week is almost a last-ditch attempt to stop the strike and I hope they bring us something. If they come with nothing, then the strikes are definitely going ahead. I think that shows real contempt for students.”
Direct your anger at university bosses
On the Industrial Action information page of the University of Sussex’s Student Hub, the University repeatedly claims that its priority is its students’ education and welfare: “The University is committed to making sure the impact on your studies is at an absolute minimum and will be doing everything we can to support you”, “we focus all our energies on minimising the impact on you – our students”.
The subtext here is clear: “We, the university, are on your side, and your lecturers are putting your education in jeopardy by deciding to walk out. We deeply regret the disruption that will be caused.”
The university figures the strike as the problem, when in reality it is a response to already existing problems that they are refusing to address.
As is so often the case during strikes, workers are vilified for causing disruption to the lives of “ordinary people.” They are labelled as rebellious and unreasonable. Employers deflect scrutiny away from the reasons behind the decision to strike and, somewhat inevitably, public anger comes to be directed at workers who people think have the power to make everything return to normal by just returning to work.
This is why strikes often fail, and workers are forced to cow to the
We must remember that, in reality, it is employers who have the power to make industrial action unnecessary by ensuring that they provide fair, safe and secure working conditions. If universities like Sussex truly cared about the education of their students, then they would begin to negotiate properly and fairly with their employees.