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The Professors at the Picket: Why Are Our Lecturers on Strike?

Hannah Parkes Smith | @dr.hanabetty 

Members of the Universities and Colleges Union walked out of lecture halls for eight days at the end of last year in an action that affected just under a million students in Britain and Ireland. The most recent wave of strikes in March and February is active at 74 universities and will affect a further 200,000, and with the promise of further action in the air, it’s important to recognise why some of the country’s most qualified individuals are involved in such a large and widespread strike.

After Brexit and the December election, many people have been focusing on moving forward whichever way we voted, but the memory of this country’s past labour disputes run deep in our collective social and cultural consciousness. The Miners’ Strike of the mid-eighties- a movement to prevent government colliery closures by the National Union of Miners- can be seen in the pit bands and banners wheeled out every election season in the north, and a recurrent theme in British cinema since the turn of the decade. Driving from my home back down to London, we pass by a large sculpture dedicated to another group of strikers, the Preston Martyrs, shot dead in a pay dispute in 1842. 

Although the history is a world away from the organised, brightly-coloured lecturers and graduate students holding placards at the entrance to Keele University (“We Earned It, We Deserve It, We Demand It”, says one; “For Everyone’s Health Over The VC’s Wealth”, another) and getting a honk from most of the passing traffic, it becomes obvious that that strike action is still something a lot of us are very much supportive of, and concerned about. 

There are a number of different, important motivations behind the current strike action:

  • low salaries, uncertain futures and precarious contracts in academia
  • race and gender inequalities in the profession
  • the heavy, unrecognised workloads that often translate to teaching staff earning less than minimum wage for an hour worked
  • changes in their pension scheme that could leave university workers up to £240,000 out of pocket at retirement

Conditions like these are seen by many of the striking staff as indicative of a growing class divide in our university system. Many of them feel that the PhD graduates successfully breaking into the profession aren’t simply the best on the market any more, they’re simply those who’ve been lucky enough to have enough financial support to sustain working uncertain contracts with low, sporadic pay for however long it takes to make it as a lecturer.

The numbers say it all: with 40% of UK academics thinking of quitting the profession for good last year, it’s an issue that’s attracted some political attention. With strong picket lines across the country and personal support from Labour Party leadership and deputy leadership hopefuls Rebecca Long-Bailey, Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, it’s a long way from what many people would think of hearing the phrase “university protest”. 

As for the students caught up in the industrial action, many are joining the picket in solidarity with their lecturers and support staff. But as universities across the country witness this kind of student support, there have also been a lot of criticisms of the striking staff on Twitter by students who feel that they’re being penalised for university management issues that are far beyond their control. In a month where the worldwide spread of the Covid-19 virus is also rapidly meaning universities need to move toward online teaching or even ending courses, it’s easy to see that such a widespread loss of contact time is causing ripples of unease in a student body already paying over £9,000 a year for tuition. 

The world has ground to a halt in light of the pandemic. Campuses from Glasgow to Goldsmiths have become bizarre liminal spaces, centres of uncertainty populated only by seagulls and the occasional postgraduate either too dedicated or desperate to leave the institutional seat. With the UCU postponing a series of reballots and moving away from the picket, the official line on the matter is that although they’re not escalating their disputes in a time of crisis, there’s no movement to abandon them either. As the education system in its entirety gears down until what is ostensibly the beginning of the new year in September, it’s an unusually powerful moment of silence for both parties in the dispute to consider their next steps and forward motion. 

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