“Staff have been worked to the bone, trying to prepare modules for changing conditions, with the same levels of pay. We are now in a position where we believe that’s completely untenable. People have had enough.” Joe Hill, 36, is a researcher at the University of Sheffield who is participating in strikes this week.
Drenched from the rain as Storm Eunice tears through the UK, he is only one of many university staff members protesting changes to their pensions, pay inequality and working conditions.
This is the latest in a long-running dispute with universities over pensions and pay. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) began their latest wave of strike action which began on Monday, 14 February.
Over 50,000 members of the UCU are striking, demanding employers reverse cuts to staff pensions.
They also want a £2,500 pay rise for all staff and employers to take action to address unmanageable workloads, pay inequality and the use of unsafe and exploitative contracts.
Matt Robson, 56, a teacher in the Department of Journalism Studies, said: “I’m on strike today because I want to protect my pension, but I’m also worried about the kind of workload issues, gender pay gap, and a whole bunch of things.”
He continued: “I understand it’s inconvenient. I understand it’s possibly upsetting for some students. I fully understand that. But I’ve also got to look after myself.
Would you want someone teaching you who was worried about their pension
Who was worried about whether they’re going to have a contract next year, was worried about whether they’re going to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month?”
There are three main reasons why the strikes are taking place:
Pension cuts Working conditions Inequality and the pay gap
As seen below, more universities are striking on weeks two and three because of both pensions and the pay gap dispute.
68 universities are participating in strike action on 21 and 22 February.
The staff are striking because of a dispute over the guaranteed pension staff receive. According to the UCU website, they did a study and found that university staff’s pensions have been cut by £240,000, and now there are proposals to reduce this further by 35%. This deduction is set to be formalized on 22 February.
Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s psychology department, said: “If we treat staff unfairly, we overwork them, we don’t pay them properly, we don’t allow them to retire in comfort, then we’re going to massively impoverish the kind of person that works at the university, and that’s going to make education worse, it’s going to make research worse.
"That’s not visually the university that I want to be behind.”
The pension dispute focuses on the financing of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which provides the pensions of staff at older UK universities, research institutes and academic think tanks.
Last week, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) recommended that employers dock the pay of staff who work to rule as part of the strike action. ‘Work to rule’ is a form of industrial action when staff follow official working rules and hours exactly, resulting in reduced work efficiency.
The UCEA recommended that employers dock 100% of pay, but so far, only six universities have implemented this, while others are warning deductions of 25%, 33% or 50%.
According to the union, the universities that have threatened to withhold 100% of pay are:
Queen Mary University of London City University of London Manchester Metropolitan University Newcastle University Bristol University Bradford University
A lot of staff are striking about the working conditions, including Dr Stafford. He said: “They’ve let people work in unsafe conditions, working themselves into ill health, keeping the university going during the pandemic. And then this is how they treat staff and the students by letting the strikes go ahead. It’s shocking. Why are we not seeing some leadership from the university?”
Alison, a 20-year-old English studies student at the University of Sheffield, supports the strikes. She said: “The reason why I’m out here – I feel like it is demonstrated by the sign – working conditions are our learning conditions, and I don’t think teachers and academic staff should be treated the way that they are. It’s not right.”
"Working conditions are our learning conditions”
Alexandra, 21, a sociology student, said: “I feel like university management are really weaponizing the disruption to the student experience to get students to be against the strikes, but I think that the more students come out in solidarity, the more I think the university won’t get away with it.”
Alison agrees with this, saying: “I think students do know it’s not the lecturers and aren’t blaming academic staff, but they’re directing anger at management quite a bit more. So I think students need to know who to “scare” and whose fault this is. That is really important.”
Joe Hill, 36, a researcher at the University of Sheffield, said how staff have been working 50 and 60 hour weeks while on 35 or 40 hour contracts regularly for two years, because of Covid-19.
“People have had enough.”
"They’ve had enough of two decades of austerity, lack of support. No pay increases attached to their pensions. What does this mean for students? What does this mean for staff? We’re all supposed to be in this together, creating an environment where we are proud to be here. How can we do that when we can’t afford to eat? When our disabled members are being paid less than us?”
According to a 2021 report on university employment contracts by UCU, Black and Asian staff are less likely to be on a permanent contract than white staff, meaning their employment is less secure.
Inequality and the pay gap:
Data research agency Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that among academic staff, 72,610 (32%) were employed on fixed-term contracts in 2020 and 2021.
Compared with white employees, Black, Asian and ethnic minority staff are more likely to sign more unstable and insecure fixed-term contracts.
According to UCU’s 2021/22 pay claim, the report said 3545 academic staff are on zero-hour contracts around UK universities.
Zero-hour contracts are widely considered a poor employment practice as staff lack the right to a contract that guarantees their work hours. UCU is anti-zero hour contracts.
Black staff are 50% more likely than white staff and three times more likely than Asian staff to be on a zero-hours contract.
Inequality is not limited to ethnicity, but it extends to gender and disability in the workplace.
The average gender pay gap in the UK higher education sector was 16%, the gap between black and white staff was 17%, and the gap for people with disabilities was 9%.
UCU says employers must give men and women equal treatment in terms of the conditions of their employment contracts.
Joe Hill, 36, a researcher of the University of Sheffield, said: “We are currently on strike for the full fight, which is a session or linked debate about a casualization workload and the disability and gender pay gap.
“Before covid, we were negotiating with UCS, which is a group that represents the universities across the UK.”
“We were having really good movement and positive discussions and getting close to kind of making some really solid agreements on how to move forward to eliminate what is a 9% pay gap for disabled colleagues.”
Strike actions will focus on pay and working disputes only, protesting on Monday 28 February, Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 March. The final day of strike action will coincide with the student strike on Wednesday, 2 March, organized by the National Union of Students (NUS).