By Jack Ainslie
As many students will no doubt be aware the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has announced further strike action. This round of industrial action follows on from the strikes at the end of last semester.
For third and fourth year students, it will be the third time their studies have been disrupted during their time at university. The industrial action will affect 73 other institutions across the country. It also follows on from academics undertaking ‘industrial action short of a strike’ since November 2019, such as lecturers only working to their contracted hours.
There are two major reasons declared by UCU for the strike going ahead. They cite ‘universities’ failure to make significant improvements on pay, equality, causalisation and workloads.’ Research in May 2019 suggested that there was an ‘epidemic’ of poor mental health amongst university staff. (They should see the students).
Some universities reported that requests for counselling from members of staff had increased by over 100%, and in one instance (Warwick) by over 300%. This was attributed to various factors such as increased work load, instability surrounding contracts and unsupportive university management. Many members of staff believe the contracts awarded to more junior tutors are unfair and result in them being forced to complete large amounts of unpaid work in order to keep up.
The pay issue is more controversial. UCU claim that the value of staff pay has declined by over 20% since 2009. However, analysis from the Universities and Colleges Employer Association (UCEA) suggests more modest decreases, though this jumps up when using a specific measure of inflation – the Retail Price Index. This measure tends to put the inflation rate (measure of the price of goods and services) higher than other rates. This is the one predominantly used by UCU and reveals starker decreases, however it has been criticised as inaccurate. Despite this, it seems undeniable that there has been a squeeze on wages over the past decade.
The second -and more publicised- part of the dispute is over pensions – specifically related to changes to the Universities’ Superannuation Scheme. Pushing through the complexities of the issue, it essentially boils down to the unhappiness of staff at paying increased contributions but receiving less in retirement. Pension contributions currently take away 9.6% of staff salaries however they will receive considerably less after the scheme changed from a defined benefits (pension fixed at set amount) to a defined contribution scheme. Analysis published last year indicated losses would be most significant for the highest earners but UCU argues that lower paid academics will also be adversely affected. General secretary of UCU, Jo O’Grady registered her dismay:
This analysis details the substantial losses suffered by USS members in recent years. A typical USS member will be around £240,000 worse off because of the changes made to the scheme since 2011
‘The latest round of increased contributions backed by universities represents another pay cut for staff. We are concerned that those on lower pay may well decide they simply cannot afford to pay for a pension any more, putting the future of the scheme at risk.
Universties UK -the body representing institutions in the United Kingdom- issued a statement upon the announcement of the strike. They said that they regretted the action by UCU whilst ‘productive discussions’ were taking place surrounding the issues and added that UCU’s demands for employers to pay more into pension schemes were ‘unaffordable.’ They assert that employers had no choice but to raise the cost of pensions due to legal changes and that institutions are covering 65% of these costs.
Strike action will take place on the following dates:
- Monday 24th – Thursday 27th February
- Monday 2nd – Friday 6th March
- Monday 9th – Friday 13th March
In an email to students, Professor Colm Harmon (VP Students) wrote that the priority of the university was to ‘minimise the impact’ of strike action on students. However, students should continue to work to deadlines unless advised otherwise by their departments. The impact of strikes will no doubt be taken into account when work is being assessed.
Despite these words of reassurance, the student community- whilst generally supportive of staff action- appear to be growing increasingly frustrated with the long-running saga. From students I have spoken to there appears to be increasing anxiety about the impact of lost teaching time at a crucial moment in the semester. Not to mention, those students who had to endure strike action in there first and second years will be increasingly disgruntled that they lose out again at a more important period of their degree programme.
There are also clamours for compensation for those students who shell out large amounts of cash to attend the university. A petition on Change.org had over 1800 signatures at the time of writing. Comments on the page indicate the frustration that students feel with university management. Limited compensation was distributed following the 2018 strikes, however nothing has been forthcoming from the University about what will happen this time around. On their website they cite article 14.3 of University terms and conditions which does not allow for compensation for lost tuition time.