By Patrick Sullivan, Co-Editor-in-Chief
New industrial action from University staff is due to start on Monday and Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor has spoken out on the key issues and what has happened since the 2018 UCU strikes.
Many University of Bristol staff members are expected to be striking outside campus buildings starting Monday as part of national industrial action at universities. Vice-Chancellor Professor Hugh Brady told Epigram in an interview that ‘students should not feel intimidated’ and that they ‘should feel comfortable passing the picket line’.
‘First, I’m sorry that a strike is taking place. Secondly, I know for the staff who’ve made this decision, this was not an easy decision to make.’
‘I know many students are sympathetic towards our staff who are taking action, and I would think that our staff would be upset if they felt students were uncomfortable [using University facilities]. That’s not the intention of striking.’
‘I would urge students to continue their studies as they normally would and we will facilitate them in every way we can.’
University and College Union (UCU) announced on 5 November that its members had voted for industrial action to be taken between 25 November and 4 December. Key teaching staff therefore may make themselves unavailable during that time as they protest.
The reasons cited for the strikes are two legal disputes with Universities UK (UUK). The first is the changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which could mean staff pensions are devalued by around £240,000. The second is the more general failure of universities to improve working conditions and pay.
‘This strike is not just about pensions and pay, it's also about some really important areas such as gender pay gap, casualisation, and workload.’
VC Professor Hugh Brady on the reasons for the UCU strikes
They are the same reasons that led to months of strike action in early 2018 and caused disruption to teaching across all faculties. Professor Brady, however, said the strikes ‘are not just about pensions and pay, but really important areas such as gender pay gap, casualisation, and workload’.
In the 18 months since the last strikes, described by Brady as a ‘wake-up call for all of us’, Brady said the University has been ‘working closely with their local UCU branch to develop sector-leading initiatives’. He cited a reduced University-wide gender pay gap of 2.6 per cent, a professorial pay gap less than 7 per cent, and the Precarious Contracts Working Party, a joint initiative between UoB and UCU to give staff contracts a ‘more stable footing’.
‘No student should “feel comfortable” with undermining the workers who are fighting against the injustices this sector is riddled with.’
Bristol Student-Staff Solidarity Group
In a statement to Epigram, a spokesperson from the student-led campaign Bristol Student-Staff Solidarity Group agreed ‘students should not feel intimidated’ by the picket line but ‘wholeheartedly’ disagreed with the further comments from Professor Brady on the matter.
‘No student should “feel comfortable” with undermining the workers who are fighting against the injustices this sector is riddled with. Nobody should be “comfortable” denying solidarity to workers struggling against the clear fact that women and BME staff are paid less. Nobody should be “comfortable” with refusing to stand with workers who are in situations where they have to work upwards of 60 hours a week and paid for 25, for the chance of securing the same exploitative contract again at the end of the semester.
‘Working conditions are learning conditions, and Professor Brady displays a tremendous cognitive dissonance if he is himself “comfortable” with crossing the picket line.’
The University of Bristol is one of 60 universities involved in the legal dispute between UCU and UUK, and one of of 43 dealing with both pay and pensions complaints. Brady said Bristol ‘are among the best’ for looking after staff and has been ‘seen as one of the contributors to the resolution of the  strikes’.
‘Most of our staff will be aware that we're part of a national collective bargaining process. We argued for a higher increment than has been implemented nationally. We have advocated that there should be a multi annual deal where pay increases are linked to inflation. We think that's fair, and gives staff certainty. Unfortunately, most institutions did not feel that they could go with that higher settlement.’
The lack of national action has meant UCU voted for industrial action again earlier this month and the University of Bristol are now working ‘to minimise the impact on the student body’. The Vice-Chancellor said they have backup plans including additional lectures, alternative study opportunities, and that also the ‘disruption will be taken into account’ in the exam period.
Featured image: Epigram / Isaac Haigh
Should students be crossing the picket line during the strikes?