Next week, lecturers and staff members at Queen’s University Belfast, and across the UK, will go on strike. After Universities UK (UUK), the organisation that represents university vice-chancellors, refused to negotiate with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) on issues varying from insecure work and zero-hours contracts to closing the gender pay gap, lecturers have no choice but to take direct action. Last week, the Queen’s Students Union council voted to stand with their lecturers in taking this action. Here’s why it’s vital that all students show solidarity with striking staff.
The working conditions of staff are the learning conditions of students. Increasing job insecurity for our lecturers has a knock-on effect on us. At Queen’s University alone, over 1,300 of its academic staff members are now precariously hired on zero-hour or temporary contracts. More so than ever, the workload of academic staff has shifted from academia – which, unsurprisingly, is what they are qualified to do – to administration. Work that would have once been undertaken by a team of dedicated administrative staff is now a burden on academics who must also: teach students, research, mark work and look for employment elsewhere under the impression that their already unstable work is likely going to be terminated. The delegation of responsibility to academic staff means that time that should be spent on students is being spent on work academics were not hired to do. Few staff members are being hired to relieve this burden. Academic posts are deliberately left vacant so class sizes are increasing. Workloads are increasing. Even fewer staff members are reluctantly doing the work that should be fulfilled by other university departments. In return, university workers have received nothing. Not even a pay rise.
University staff are overworked and underpaid. Despite an increasing workload, academics have seen a fall in their pay. Staff members on temporary and zero-hour contracts earn 20% less in real terms than they did ten years ago. Their wages, too, have not risen in line with inflation. A student might ask why they should care about how much their lecturers earn. Insecure labour has a direct impact on the learning environment of students too; especially those seeking to become academics themselves. Academic workers employed on temporary and zero-hour contracts are disproportionately younger than their securely employed counterparts. Additionally, amongst younger academics, those hit hardest are women and black, Asian and minority ethnic people. Across the sector, women are paid 15% less than men and BAME people are 10% more likely to be employed on a temporary basis. When young students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, are told consistently that they are welcome in higher education - regardless of their class, race or gender - it’s about time we started questioning why the university system is not benefitting us, and if not who is it benefitting?
Now is a good time to mention that the vice-chancellor of Queen’s University, Professor Ian Greer, earns £300,000 per year. Perhaps the reason UUK is so reluctant to negotiate with the UCU is because they’d rather our tuition fees were transferred to senior management instead of into the hands of hard-working staff members who should not have to strike for the right to a fair wage and job security. Academic workers, just like any other workers, have children to feed and bills to pay. They deserve to do so without worrying about whether they will have paid employment in a few months’ time. When students pay for a service – an expensive one, at that – they should be able to demand that the service functions fairly, to a high quality and without disruption. If academic staff were paid their fair share, there would be no need to strike. To stop disruption, students should join their lecturers in demanding a higher education system that does not marginalise its workers, and in turn reduces the quality of teaching us students receive. Both students and staff deserve better.
Demanding better from university employers is nothing new. Just under two years ago, UCU members were on strike in universities across the UK to prevent pension reforms. It is still on their list of demands for the UUK to adhere to in the upcoming strike. Pension schemes for academic staff are becoming so expensive that some staff members – especially the youngest – increasingly struggle to meet the payments and have considered not joining the pension scheme. If this continues, it will be us, current students and young people, who bear this burden. We all suffer when workers are not given a decent pension; through our own taxes as young people going into the workforce who will have to make up for the pensions that wealthy employers refused to give, and for our own pensions when we eventually leave the workforce. A reduction of living standards for retiring workers is a reduction in living standards for us all.
Here’s what students can do to help. E-mail your vice-chancellor. Tell them to continue negotiating fairly with the UCU, and that you support your lecturers in their decision to strike. There is power in telling other students about why they should support the strike too. There is power in the picket line. There is real change that can be achieved by supporting the strike, for both staff and students; secure employment, higher wages for future academics and equal pay for all workers across the sector. There will only be change when students and staff alike stand shoulder to shoulder against injustice in higher education. We can do this next week when we strike.
Olivia is a student at Queen’s University Belfast and Labour Party activist. She is a youth facilitator and the student coordinator for the QUB Mind your Mood campaign.