Opinion | Supporting the strike: Pensions, pay and profitability

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By Greg Evans, First Year History

The University and College Union (UCU) members supported strike action for two disputes, the first on pensions and the second on pay and working conditions. For many Bristol University students this will mean losing up to eight days of contact hours. This follows the strike period in 2018 which saw 545,000 teaching hours lost across the UK.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU said:

‘It is incredibly frustrating that we had to ballot members again, but universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions.’

Under new proposals, staff face significant financial losses, typically ‘paying around £40,000 more into their pension – but receiving nearly £200,000 less in retirement.’ This comes at the same time the UCU revealed that ‘a part-time lecturer contracted and paid for 10 hours and bringing in £187 a week… will have an hourly rate of £18.70. However, if she is in fact working 20 hours a week (which is the median from our survey) she will be paid a real hourly rate of £9.35.’

It is critical that students support university staff in the face of degradation of their workers’ rights, but also in the wider political and economic landscape of a marketised education system. Unlike in 2018, this strike seems to have a more radical atmosphere; strike action is not just challenging the terms of pensions and pay, but the structural inequality that exists in a marketised education system that disproportionately affects women, disabled people and people of colour.

Strike action outside Victoria Rooms | Epigram / Benjamin Salmon

This strike addresses pay-gaps, casualisation of work and equality within the workplace. This seems particularly important given Bristol University’s record on accessibility.

Marketisation of higher education has its roots in 1980s Thatcherism, yet the greatest acceleration of privatisation came from the Tory-led coalition government of 2010, who as part of austerity, pushed for the outsourcing of work within public services. By removing public funding, and massively increasing the student fee cap from £3000 to £9000 in 2012, the coalition government cemented the privatisation of higher education.

What we are experiencing now are the effects of these policies.

The outsourcing of higher education services has led to universities being run as businesses, rather than democratic public institutions. League tables, removal of caps on student intake and graduate-employment statistics have created unhealthy market competition between universities. Austerity has pushed economic risk and responsibility onto workers - university staff are having their rights eroded in the name of profit.

The outsourcing of higher education services has led to universities being run as businesses

Perhaps most noticeably in Bristol’s lecture theatres, staff-student ratios have declined dramatically. As a student, I can pretty confidently say that not one member of university staff knows me by name. Many university employees’ careers involve a string of low-paid, often zero-hour contract roles, which frustratingly lead to lack of interaction with students. With increasing numbers of students to provide for, and no real increase in staffing levels, the UCU state that many workers now feel at breaking point.

This environment within Bristol seems so far removed from what I expected before arriving here. My university halls of residence explicitly refer to me as ‘customer’ – this just doesn’t sit right with me. Higher education has become less about educating students, and more about university workers providing a service for consumers.

I stand in solidarity with university staff who are pushed to provide increasingly demanding workloads for an increasing number of equally disillusioned students.

The University of Bristol, University of Bath and University of Exeter are all taking part in the action, which started today

Posted by ITV News West Country on Monday, 25 November 2019

More so than in 2018, the proposed strikes are a grassroots rally against a neo-liberal education system that is failing under austerity. Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary as of February 2019, is an exciting person to have at the helm. Born into a striking miner’s family in the 1980s, a first-generation university student and a leading expert in trade unions; hers was a grassroots election campaign that represented all sectors.

The UCU strike is an opportunity for us to support university staff as their pay and pensions are put at risk: withdrawal of labour remains the most effective way to effect change within employment. It is also an opportunity for us to push the UCU to investigate racial inequality and ableism within the higher education system. It is essential that we stand by staff to protect employment in higher education, to fight for the future of universities and to unite behind workers in the face of austerity and neo-liberal policy.

There is a feeling of change in the air. Solidarity with the UCU strike. See you on the picket.

Featured Image: Epigram / Patrick Sullivan


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