From 1st – 3rd December, academic staff at 58 universities across the UK – including Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University – will take strike action over cuts to pensions and pay, pay inequality, excessive workloads and increasing casualisation on campuses.
On the basis of a faulty valuation of the pension scheme, the employers’ bodies are trying to force through changes which would devalue staff’s guaranteed pension payments by 35%. Meanwhile, pay for academics has fallen by 20% in real terms over the last twelve years due to below-inflation pay deals.
While university managements attempt to squeeze ever more work out of academic staff, short-term and insecure contracts are increasingly the norm for new entrants to the profession. The gender pay gap in universities is estimated at 15%, while women and ethnic minorities are drastically under-represented in professorial positions.
Members of the University & College Union (UCU) had taken 22 days of determined strike action over these issues in early 2020, before the Covid pandemic shut campuses. Unfortunately, the union’s leadership then effectively halted the campaign and momentum was lost. It is thanks to the efforts of grassroots activists on the left of the union that the UCU is now re-engaging in this battle, with a commitment to escalate the campaign in the new year if there is no movement from the employers.
SU leaderships fail to deliver solidarity – students should organise to support strikes
The National Union of Students has backed the industrial action, and carried out a survey which found that 73% of students support the staff in their fight for decency and respect at work. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the university students’ unions locally. At Ulster, the students’ council voted narrowly to oppose the strikes due to their supposed impact on students, while the Queen’s Students’ Union leadership shirked its responsibility and instead put the issue to a referendum.
Students and staff face the same fight – cuts to and corporatisation of education in the interests of profit. The scandalous treatment of students by university managements throughout the Covid pandemic should bring home this reality. Poor working conditions for staff and poor learning conditions for students go hand in hand. Meanwhile, university bosses are experiencing no hardships. For example, Queen’s and Ulster universities combined spent over £500,000 on their respective vice-chancellors’ residences over the past five years.
This is a battle for the future of education. Students and staff need to stand together. Students’ unions should be actively building support for the strike among their members, encouraging students not to cross picket lines. They should be organising joint rallies with striking staff and raising their own demands, including the call for free education, living grants and decent, affordable student accommodation. Socialist Party student activists will be campaigning in solidarity with staff in their fight, including campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote to back the strike in the referendum at Queen’s.
By Daniel Waldron