University staff strikes: 'After 10 years of being treated as a low priority we've had enough'
Hundreds of staff at Sheffield universities have gone on strike for eight days over disputes linked to pay, pensions and working conditions.
Sheffield Hallam University and University of Sheffield staff took to pickets across the city with drums, placards and union armbands – some even danced and sang in the rain.
Some members of trade union UCU said it was the biggest university strike action they had taken part in, with strikers going without pay for a week-and-a-half in the run-up to Christmas.
Arlene Lawler, lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam, said: “We’re striking in the hope we can improve our working conditions and in turn improve the students’ experience by having enough time, space and energy to improve the courses and give students the kind of help they need.
“On a day to day basis there is just too much work. At night, weekends – it’s all the time. I never go through a week where I don’t work in the evenings and at the weekend, like most staff. It’s just too much work for the hours.
“I think eight days is a very long strike, I think it sets out quite a strong commitment to what we want. How successful it will be, I don’t know because not everyone is a member of the union, if they were I have no doubt it wouldn’t have got this far but you have to try and you might stop things getting worse even if you don’t get your demands met.”
The University of Sheffield is one of 42 universities nationally where staff are striking over pay and pensions, while Sheffield Hallam is one of 14 where workers are taking action over wages and conditions. Striking staff include lecturers, support services staff, admissions tutors, librarians, technicians and administrators.
The eight days will be followed by action short of a strike, in which staff will work only to contract and refuse to reschedule missed lectures or undertake work missed during the walkout.
Despite the disruption, many students have backed staff.
Hallam Students Support the Strike launched a petition to show solidarity which has so far reached more than 200 signatures and a ‘roving picket’ was set up by Sheffield University Students’ Union.
Lauren O’Donoghue, creative writing student at Sheffield Hallam, said: “The response from students has been really positive. I think once you talk to them and know all the facts and sides of the issue they’re actually really open to have a dialogue about it. I don’t think a lot of them realise how bad the working conditions are. I think there’s this assumption every lecturer is on a full-time contract, being paid really well and is going home at 5pm every day and it’s just not true.”
Hallam UCU said staff were currently given only 20 minutes to read, mark and give feedback on 2,000-word essays and were being made to take on the equivalent of a day’s admin work on top of teaching and other duties.
Data from a Freedom of Information request showed between 2010 and 2015 there was a 56 per cent increase in staff referrals to university counselling at Sheffield Hallam. The University of Sheffield said they did not hold this information as their counselling service had been outsourced.
Lecturers across the country have also faced a 20 per cent real terms pay cut since 2010 and changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme could see those signed up to it around £240,000 worse off in retirement over their career.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said members were now at ‘breaking point’.
Dr Sam Marsh, president of Sheffield UCU, said: “This is a result of a decade of wrong direction with staff being treated as a low priority. It’s a big strain on people’s lives, there are far too many people working throughout their evenings and weekends and in some cases not being paid for it. It’s a really toxic situation.
“I think universities are starting to realise just how bad things are but they’re not prepared to take action on it yet. The solution on the one hand is simple: they need to hire more staff and on secure terms. The problem is from their point of view is that costs money and they’re being really resistant to put that money in.
“The last published accounts from this university showed there was 100 million pounds more taken in than paid out. So there’s huge amounts of money swimming around the sector, certainly at this university, and it needs to be diverted back to where it really makes a difference to student education which is in the staff.”
The industrial action will last until December 3. Staff have been on picket lines every day as well as running a programme of ‘teach-outs’ including classes on unions. Strikers will gather for a rally in Barker’s Pool on Thursday, November 28 at midday to hear from various speakers including Jo Grady.
A spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam University said: “The university will remain open during this period of industrial action.
“While we will make every effort to minimise disruption for students and the wider university community through alternative arrangements, we acknowledge that activities could be affected.
“We are keeping students informed of the latest information, but we are keen to stress that the university, our library, help desks and other student services will remain open as normal during this time.”
Professor Koen Lamberts, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, said: “We understand that many staff at universities across the UK have concerns around pay and pensions and we are working in partnership with trade union colleagues to see what more can be done locally and to use our influence to try to shape the national debate. We are keen to find a meaningful negotiated solution so we can end the disputes and any further disruption.
“The University fully respects the right of staff to take industrial action, and we accept that action is not taken lightly, however we have a responsibility to minimise any disruption to our students and staff who choose not to participate. We will do all we can to ensure that the impact of this action is minimal."
Dr Grady said a second wave of strikes could be held in the new year if no agreement is reached.