Academia is Broken. But Guess What: the Strikes Can Save It!
In 2021, the Guardian published an account about a PhD student, also a lecturer, at Royal Holloway who lived in a tent for two years because she could not afford to rent. The researcher’s situation—of low pay, no job security, and very little promise of the stability of an academic career—is not an uncommon one. Indeed, scholars at both Cambridge and Oxford have exposed these prestigious institutions for “uberisation” of academic contracts, referring to gig economy working conditions—particularly for the undergraduate supervisions (one-on-one tutoring) that these institutions are known for. More recently, with the current cost of living crisis in the UK, young academics have reported not being able to afford adequate meals, and some have asked universities to set up food banks. It is in this context that the members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have been striking since 2018. Despite the undeniable severity of the situation, university management and some tabloids have sought to vilify striking staff, with headlines such as “Militant lecturers don’t care how strikes hurt students, says charity chief.” This misrepresents the UCU industrial action as violent and aimed at harming students rather than bringing university management to the table for constructive negotiations. It also ignores the legitimacy of what has now become a UCU slogan and is supported by many student unions across the country: the lecturers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
As former PhD students and now as early career academics at several UK universities who have participated in the strikes since 2018, we strongly support UCU industrial action, as it sets forward a way to save the crumbling academic sector. Our reasons for this are of course political and ideological, but also personal, as all three of us have experienced different levels of precarity since graduating. Part-time and short-term contracts, which require applying for new jobs while managing heavy teaching and/or research workloads, have had severe effects on our livelihoods. Additionally, for immigrant workers like us, precarity causes complicated visa-related circumstances and puts us in difficult situations, for example when finding temporary rental accommodation. What this demonstrates is that precarity spills out into all areas of our lives, and so the fight for fairer working conditions is quite literally existential.
In this article, we aim to address the reasons for UCU industrial action and its importance for the future of the sector. As Gates Cambridge scholars and alumni, we can have a significant impact on the success of UCU strikes.
"As our voices have been repeatedly ignored, the strikes are our last resort for making senior management listen and come to the negotiating table with serious intent to meet our demands rather than implementing performative action."
What exactly are the UCU strikes about? There are two disputes around which the UCU has been organising industrial action: (1) pay and conditions (also referred to as four fights), and (2) pensions. The dispute on pay and conditions arose after years of university staff being neglected in four ways:
Casualisation. The insecure contracts in academia seem to be the norm rather than an exception. Specifically, nearly half of the academic roles and 68% of research roles in the UK are casualised. A 2018 UCU survey at Cambridge found that 45% of undergraduate supervisions are delivered by the most casualised members of staff: postgraduate students, postdocs, and freelancers. In response to this, in 2021 the Cambridge UCU branch and the Cambridge Students’ Union launched the “Justice for College Supervisors” campaign, which calls for improved working conditions for college-employed hourly-paid undergraduate supervisors.
Falling real term pay. With rising inflation, pay of higher education staff has effectively been cut by 25% since 2009.
Disturbing inequalities. Pay gap inequalities have been systematically observed in relation to gender, race, and disability. The percentage of pay gaps varies across UK institutions, with some not disclosing the existing gaps. In 2019, the gender pay gap at Cambridge stood at 19.6%.
Unsafe workloads. The Guardian recently reported that 50% of academics “worked more than 50 hours and 21% exceeded 60 hours a week, with some saying they were prevented from doing the research required to further their academic careers.” As a reference point, the usual university full time contract includes about 37 hours of work per week. At Cambridge, the 2018 UCU survey found that “66.1% of polled supervisors conduct at least 3 hours preparation per 1 hour of paid contact time, meaning that many of them are earning far below minimum wage.”
While university staff are facing these abominable conditions, our employers ended 2020-21 with a £2.4 billion surplus. In addition, the university Vice Chancellors, who have consistently undermined industrial action, are earning on average £269,000 per year, with some of them earning up to about £500,000 per year. Figures like these demonstrate the existence of a budget, which needs to be redistributed and invested in the most valuable asset of the universities: their students and staff.
The pension-related strikes started in 2018 and the dispute escalated in 2022, when our guaranteed pension income was cut by 35% on average. Academics who have recently joined the sector will experience even more severe cuts to their guaranteed pensions (up to around 50%), which discourages more prospective higher education professionals from joining or remaining in the sector. The 2022 cut was based on a valuation conducted at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic indicating a deficit in the pension scheme. However, the scheme has recovered since, the evidence of which was provided by the UCU to the university Vice Chancellors across the UK.
Nevertheless, the majority of Vice Chancellors, including Prof Stephen Toope, the Cambridge Vice Chancellor at the time, supported the pension cuts. As with the pay and conditions dispute, university senior management has repeatedly demonstrated a severe lack of leadership which left university workers no choice but to organise ongoing national industrial action. In November 2022, the UCU announced a strike mandate at 150 universities across the UK.
Why are strikes a way forward? Criticism of UCU strikes often involves calls for dialogue—however, this criticism does not realise and acknowledge that it is exactly the lack of communication by senior management which has left university workers no choice but to organise industrial action. Without meaningful dialogue with their employees, universities have resorted to feigning helplessness, citing lack of resources as the reason they cannot give their staff a pay raise in keeping with rising costs of living. This is despite universities’ substantial surplus and continued spending on building projects. Some universities have tried to appease staff with tokenistic one-off cost of living payments, and others have attempted to gaslight, asking “Is it really that terrible?" When senior management has organised talks with staff, their tendency has been to talk at—rather than with—them. We have recently experienced online “town hall meetings” where the majority of time was spent on PowerPoint presentations from senior management, with only 15-20 minutes spared for cherry-picked questions from the chat (and the audience muted throughout the meeting). Universities also recycle tabloid-like narratives about unreasonable demands by militant unions and encourage students to snitch on striking staff (without much success due to strong student support for staff). What is required for a resolution is constructive negotiation between senior management and all campus unions as well as action by management oriented towards meeting the needs of university workers and students. As our voices have been repeatedly ignored, the strikes are our last resort for making senior management listen and come to the negotiating table with serious intent to meet our demands rather than implementing performative action.
How can you help? We call upon the international Gates Cambridge scholar and alumni community to support the effort to save the UK academic sector in the following ways:
If you are a current PhD student with teaching responsibilities or a member of teaching staff (not only at Cambridge, but at any UK university), join your local UCU branch and the strikes. Your local branches can provide support about involvement in the strikes and answer any questions you might have as an immigrant worker or a worker on a precarious contract.
Scholars and alumni based inside or outside the UK can donate to the strike fund. Note that striking workers receive salary deductions for each day of strike. The UCU strike fund is in place to support workers who require financial help during industrial action. Your donations can therefore help us maintain numbers of workers on strike for a long period.
Write to the Cambridge Vice Chancellor at VCO.Enquiries@admin.cam.ac.uk to express your support for the strikes and ask them to join constructive negotiations with their local union branches.
Show solidarity with the ongoing UCU strikes on social media and use the tag #ucuRISING.
The Gates Cambridge scholarship is distinctive in its offer of awards to those who demonstrate a “commitment to improving the lives of others” and “a capacity for leadership.” As Gates Cambridge alumni, it is these principles that we draw upon in participating in and supporting the UCU strikes as well as the more recent strikes by many public sector workers—railway workers, nurses, teachers, postal workers, ambulance workers—in the UK. We also stand in solidarity with the global movement against the marketisation of higher education, which commodifies learning while degrading the working conditions of both staff and students. University of California staff recently went on the largest-ever US higher education strike to demand better pay for graduate student instructors and won a landmark deal. Even if the times look bleak right now, we march on in hope that with solidarity, including from the Gates Cambridge community, we will win.
Asiya Islam [PhD, 2015] is a lecturer in work and employment relations at the University of Leeds.
Draško Kašćelan [PhD, 2015] is a lecturer in language and communication sciences at the University of Essex.
Marina Veličković [PhD, 2017] is a lecturer in law at the University of Kent.