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Behind the picket lines: speaking to striking university staff

On 1-3 December, university staff who belong to the UCU (University and College Union) took industrial action over unresolved disputes concerning pay and the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) pension.

By Flossie Palmer, Features Editor

On 1-3 December, university staff who belong to the UCU (University and College Union) took industrial action over unresolved disputes concerning pay and the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) pension. This follows a UCU ballot vote in favour of taking industrial action and ASOS (Action Short of a Strike) – with staff only working their contracted hours and not volunteering to do any more for five months – which took place on 4 November.

UCU members have been striking to initiate action on the four fights – pay, equality, workload and casualisation – as well as the USS pensions, which requires a higher rate of contribution in wages from members of staff under the 2020 valuation. UUK (Universities UK), has also proposed drastic cuts to the guaranteed, defined benefit element of the scheme, which previously ensured that members of staff have a guaranteed amount of income and, consequently, a guaranteed retirement pension. If the proposed cut to guaranteed pensions is enacted, members of staff on the average starting salary will face a 35 per cent cut to guaranteed retirement benefits.

In the ballot concerning taking strike action over the four fights, 82 per cent of national voters agreed that it is necessary to take strike action. Similar figures of 70.8 per cent of national voters also agreed that it is necessary to take industrial action over USS pensions. Epigram spoke to John McTague, Senior Lecturer and UCU representative for the English Department at the University, who explained these high statistics.

He said, ‘The higher education sector is under attack, and it has been for over 20 years. But universities aren’t really going anywhere – they’re long-term institutions. One of the things that is being used to assess risk is how much money the pension scheme needs to pay all current and future promised benefits if all of the universities left the scheme, and that’s the basis on which they’re making these estimations, which, of course, means they need loads of money.’

McTague also pointed out that the valuation on which the USS pensions are based was made in March 2020, a time period unrepresentative of the stock market, which faced its lowest point in the last ten years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking for the majority of UCU members at the University, McTague stated that ‘we have a real sense that this was done deliberately to dismantle the defined benefits scheme.’

Instead of accepting this proposed valuation, UCU members at the University will be striking for a new valuation to be made, so that the massive cuts to the defined benefits scheme are revoked. According to McTague, the University of Bristol has not been entirely clear on its stance towards the USS pensions: ‘In some ways, the University of Bristol has been more of a dove than a hawk in terms of pensions – they are making all the right noises. They have said in the past that they’re willing to pay a bit more. The problem is that they actually voted for the UUK proposals – they say they have been lobbying the UUK to do things differently, but actually they voted for them.’

'The higher education sector is under attack, and it has been for over 20 years'

The trend in unclear communication continues between the University and its staff. In an email to staff and all PGRs, Claire Buchanan, Chief People Officer at the University, ‘wrote with considerable regret’ to staff to inform them that by striking, they are breaking their employment contract, and 100% of their pay per day will be withheld. If strikes are said to have a ‘detrimental’ impact on students, the university also reserves the right to withhold salary indefinitely.

While speaking to staff on the picket lines, Jamie Melrose, UCU President of the Bristol branch informed those striking outside the Geography and Life Sciences building that university security had noted there were more than six members of staff on the picket line – a measure taken by striking staff as to not ‘intimidate’ those who wish to enter university buildings.

‘Management have made it very difficult to express how we feel and that’s a trend more generally with the government,’ Maria Fannin, Professor of Human Geography and UCU Representative for the Geography Department at the University said, ‘We have to fight against those added pressures.’

Staff at The University of Bristol striking outside of the Geography Building | Maria Fannin

Seb Key, Bristol SU’s Undergraduate Education Officer, in an email sent to all university undergraduates, declared the SU’s support of striking university staff; ‘We will be battling alongside the UCU for the university to join us in lobbying for national change, in order to restore your university experience to that which you deserve.’

Other student groups have also shown their support for striking staff. On 1 December, Bristol Socialist Worker Student Society joined university staff during their rally at Victoria Rooms, and later joined in with their march down to College Green. In fact, one of the most popular chants during the march was ‘Students and workers unite and strike!’. Students were also found along Woodland Road handing out homemade hummus and bread to staff along the picket lines as a show of support.

The disputes being raised by striking staff are also issues which students face everyday, such as disruptive changes in teaching staff due to staff being on temporary, casualised contracts. According to Maria Fannin, staff are usually on ‘6 month contracts, 9 month contracts, or 12 month contracts if they’re lucky.’ Noting this instability for both teaching staff and students, Fannin stated that ‘Our working conditions are your learning conditions, and I think that’s very true!’.

John McTague also stated that ‘there is a real risk that the profession becomes less diverse, and that’s the problem too with the gender and ethnicity and disability pay gaps’ – students soon may not see themselves reflected in the identities of their teaching staff, let alone have the security of having a regular tutor. By handing out pamphlets, stickers and talking to students at the picket lines, university staff hope to encourage unity between striking staff and students on these issues.

Benedetta Lomi, lecturer in East Asian Religions at the university, raised the importance of unity between students and staff; ‘I find it very hard why you wouldn’t support the strikes – it’s an issue that concerns everyone.’ Maria Fannin explained that while students study, graduate and leave higher education while not knowing the lack of improvement to working conditions, some return to academia and face the same challenges – staff are not just striking for themselves, but for their students and those choosing academia as a career; ‘We can’t assume that all students want to go into academia, but here you all are!’ she exclaimed.

However, staff have also recognised the frustration of students and the disruption to teaching posed by strike action: ‘What we want to communicate to students is that striking is difficult, we don’t like it and we don’t get paid. We know it’s difficult for students and we want to help students, it’s difficult for lots of colleagues in different areas of the university… but it’s the only thing that works’, John McTague explained.

When asked if staff expect students to unite with them on strike, Benedetta Lomi showed understanding towards students who either cannot strike at the moment, or have chosen not to; ‘We understand that everyone has their lives to live and it’s difficult at this busy time for students to support us.’

However, if students do wish to show their support, John McTague has encouraged students to write to university management to express their anger at their studies being disrupted. McTague admitted that ‘the most noticeable labour we can withdraw is the stuff that’s scheduled as teaching, which means you are being used as a pawn in this to an extent.’ However, the intention is for students to put pressure on university management and highlight the importance of university staff to their education. McTague also suggested that ‘if students are sympathetic to the strike, getting in touch with your lecturers can be really helpful, as staff are quite nervous to take strike action.’

Whether students support the ongoing UCU strike action or not, the issue at the heart of the strikes is one that unites both staff and students: ‘The wider issue here is about the commercialisation and commodification of higher education. You’re being positioned as consumers and we as service providers.’ McTague explained. However, by resisting that, ‘we can start to think of ways that we can form a community and students can work with staff, rather than being positioned as our customers.’

Featured Image: Epigram / Flossie Palmer

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