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University Strikes: A National Concern

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Alekia Gill explores the ongoing UCU strikes, questioning the future for both staff and students amidst the dispute over pay and working conditions.


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A report by the University and College Union (UCU) found that, in 2021 to 2022, universities across the UK generated a surplus income of £2.6 billion, the highest produced in four years. This data is taken solely from universities that have been involved in industrial disputes regarding treatment of staff, the underpayment of workers and cuts to pensions.


Staff at over 143 universities have been involved in industrial action since 2018, with a Marking and Assessment Boycott taking place over summer, and a five-day UK-wide strike taking place at the beginning of term as part of the long-running dispute.


Individual universities can also take matters into their own hands when it comes to continued disruption and management decisions, such as at the University of the Highlands and Islands, where six days of strike action took place in October over job cuts.



Signs of Progress


At rallies and picket lines at The University of Edinburgh, staff and students testified to the poor conditions provided by the university, leading lecturers to deal with growing piles of administrative tasks and limited time to prepare tutorials for subjects they may never have encountered before. Marking is often done during unpaid hours and administrative staff can become so overwhelmed with requests that responses can take up to two weeks.


Recent years have also seen strikes in response to pension cuts. In October 2023, Universities UK agreed to restore pension payments to previous levels before a 35% cut was made in April 2022. Commenting on the agreement, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘We have pension justice. We now move on to delivering justice on pay and job security.’


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Impact on Students


For students during strike action and ongoing disputes, learning conditions are heavily disrupted, if not non-existent. Despite this, universities have been unwilling to provide compensation for students who have paid full fees for the entire university experience but are not receiving teaching for much of their studies.


For example, the Marking and Assessment boycott led to countless degrees being indefinitely deferred, causing many to lose out on postgrad places, job offers and subsequently, VISAs. For international students who paid over the normal amount to study in the UK, a lack of concern from management is a major cause of frustration.


At the University of Edinburgh, the £43k pay rise for Vice-Chancellor Sir Peter Mathieson was nothing short of controversial, since students at the university were left graduating without degree classifications.


"This is just the start for our union. We have pension justice. We now move on to delivering justice on pay and job security. We will not stop until we create a higher education sector that properly values its staff." - Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary

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Looking to the Future


At a rally in September, University of Edinburgh Brand Membership Secretary Sue Sierra pointed out that ‘it is unprecedented for a union of our size to win a mandate for industrial action three times in a row. The rules are set up to be difficult for trade unions, so employers are counting on us to not be able to win this mandate for action’.


In a significant blow, the UCU announced in November that turnout for the vote on further strike action did not reach the necessary threshold. Turnout was 42.59%, below the 50% threshold, with 68.32% voting in favour of strike action.


Meanwhile, the UCU reported that staff at further education colleges across England had voted overwhelmingly in favour of strikes, which took place in November.

It is not clear what will come next in the ongoing union disputes. One thing that has been clear, however, is the support from students. One student at the September rally in Edinburgh stated: ‘We stand for fairness, for dignity, and for the future of education’.


A joint statement from University of Edinburgh management and the UCU stated that both sides acknowledged the disruption that had been caused and its effects on students. The priority, both parties stated, is to provide quality grades and feedback and to finalise awards and progression from the last academic year, while providing students with the best possible teaching standards. The question of when this will happen, however, has been left unanswered.

 

Researched by Alekia Gill & Ellis Jackson / Editor: Laura Pollard / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington

 

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