‘Exploitation is the dirty secret of higher education’: London’s university staff on why they’re striking

Cars hooting, chanting into megaphones, picket lines of public sector workers standing out in the cold in puffer jackets.

Scenes like this have become a familiar sight in recent months — particularly today, on what’s being dubbed ‘Walkout Wednesday’, as teachers, train drivers and civil servants all take part in what is reportedly the biggest day of strike action in over a decade.

One picket line that has been receiving rather less attention in recent months than some of the others is that of lecturers and university staff — 70,000 of whom from the University and College Union (UCU) have been striking across the capital today in an ongoing dispute about pay, pensions and working conditions.

“Today and next week and the days after that are crucial,” general secretary Jo Grady told crowds of UCU members and supporters gathered outside LSE this morning, many of them chanting “soldarity forever, for the union makes us strong” with their dogs, prams and young children, who were also taking a day off learning thanks to the school strikes.

Here, a professor, a library manager and Grady herself explain why the walkouts are crucial for the future of higher education.

‘Professors like me have had to become amateur mental health workers’

Pat McGovern, associate professor of sociology at LSE

Pat McGovern (Matt Writtle)
Pat McGovern (Matt Writtle)

I’ve been working in education for 25 years and I’m striking because of wages, but also a real concern with what’s happening across the generations. We have a lot of colleagues on temporary, part-time, fixed-term contracts and we also have a new pension scheme that’s hitting them harder than those of us who’ve been in the profession a lot longer. So there’s a sense of real worry that the future of the sector isn’t sustainable with these changes.

Academia is a good job, it’s an attractive job, but the problem is getting a job in it, because so many are on a short-term basis. I wish people would wake up and appreciate what’s happening in universities: they wouldn’t accept it in secondary schools for A-Levels, that such a big proportion of your teaching is done by people on casual contracts. It just wouldn’t be sustainable and parents would complain about it.

The students I see today are doing twice the amount of coursework and twice the amount of assessment they were doing when I started 25 years ago, and getting the same degree than they were 25 years ago. They don’t get any more credit for the extra work they do. They don’t get any more credit for the extra developmental stuff they do. It’s just a continuing intensification of work for students and staff and as a result students are more stressed and have more mental health issues, so we as teachers have had to become amateur mental health workers as well as trying to teach.

As staff, we have to accept that we’re going to fail; that we’re not going to be able to do all of our job, so we have to pick which part we’ll not be able to do as well as we did previously. It’s a difficult thing to do because we’re all high-achieving people who like to be good at everything, but we have to accept that we cannot do everything as well as we previously did. It’s not easy; we’re making it up as we go along.

Like lots of other jobs we have the curse of emails, so we’re always looking out for the emails from students worried about their dissertation or other projects — we try to spot those. Then we’re under pressure to deliver research so we’re taking up family hours doing our research — and that’s difficult because you may have a partner who’s unhappy about the amount of housework they’re doing, while you’re trying to do some writing. That’s one of the consequences; the spillover into other lives. I dare say if you ask lots of academics’ children today, they’re not going to follow their parents into their profession — that, to me, is very sad.

Meanwhile, all of this is relying on a model of bringing in lots of temporary staff, and at some point that becomes a real issue and I think we’ve reached that. It’s not sustainable, there is the money in the sector, and the staff are the sector: we don’t need to be property companies, we don’t need to be throwing up glamorous and expensive buildings with award-winning architecture all the time. Universities should invest in the people much more than they are.

It’s heartening to see the support we have from students. I had an email yesterday from students on one of my programmes asking what they can do to support the strikes; can they come and join the picket? I had another very detailed email from students before Christmas who wrote to the director of LSE. As I see it, I feel obliged to do a really good job when I’m teaching them now, even though we’re going to be going on strike and we lose pay and they lose some teaching. We’re in this because we enjoy teaching, we enjoy working with students. The last thing we want to do is go on strike. People are really torn about this. Whether we’re in primary school or the university sector, we’re there because we want to teach young people and help them develop.

To vice chancellors, I would say: let’s get together and make not just a deal for the moment but a set of processes that will stop this happening in the future. We’ve been on strike far too often in the last few years, with nothing achieved.

‘Exploitation is the dirty secret of higher education — yet there’s plenty of money in the system’

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU

Jo Grady (Matt Writtle)
Jo Grady (Matt Writtle)

Understandably, there are lots of other jobs that the media focuses on when it comes to strikes — people probably don’t think of university workers as being on the receiving end of pay cuts, but we are. Our pay has been cut by 25 per cent, our pensions cut by 30 per cent, and more than that we’ve got a sector that runs on exploiting insecure contracts. So if you go to a university or one of your friends or children do, they are probably being taught by someone on an insecure contract.

What that means is that if you send them an email they’re answering that for free; if you want advice from them outside of the lecture theatre, they’re doing that for free. Once you figure out how much you get paid for marking and assessment as a teacher, it’s probably £3 an hour. It’s the dirty secret of higher education, that it’s run on exploiting people.

We’ve got 100,000 people currently on insecure contracts and this is a sector with £40 billion in reserves. Just three per cent of that £40 billion would settle our pay claim, so this is an easily resolvable dispute and we need employers to move.

We know this strike action is disruptive. We’ve got 18 days of action planned between February and March and obviously we hope not to have to take them all because we know there’s money in the sector to settle this dispute. It will be disruptive in the meantime, but we are hoping to make the sector better for staff and for students because at the minute both are being short-changed.

Fortunately, we do have student support. The National Union of Students has backed the strikes, there’s been an outpouring of goodwill on social media and students are actually picketing here this morning, just round the corner. They know that it was staff keeping the show on the road by teaching from their dinner tables during Covid. They know that burnt out staff who have to work every weekend and don’t even get paid to answer emails from them — what message does that sent to students about how much the university cares?

Students who are facing disruption need to get angry at vice chancellors, the people who are sat on top of billions. Personally, I would say to vice chancellors: get on the picket lines with me, stop hiding in your offices, stop hiding on press releases and pieces of paper you give to the media. Come and debate with us, come and tell staff why you’re not willing to pay them properly. They’re not doing any of that at the moment.

What we’re asking for is simple: we need a deal on pay, on workload and on security, that helps us do our jobs to the best of our ability, because at the minute the current situation is making working in higher education impossible. We’re at a turning point for higher education, rather than a breaking point, but if the government and university bosses continue on this path, we will only continue to see things get worse.

‘We’re striking for future generations — in-person teaching is so important’

Jo Taplin-Green, library manager at LSE and the LSE branch chair of the UCU

Jo Thaplin-Green (Matt Writtle)
Jo Thaplin-Green (Matt Writtle)

We’re striking for pay, primarily, but also for restoration of our pension benefits and other things like equality pay caps. As university staff, we’re so overworked. We work long hours, an excess of 60 hours a week, our pay is at the lowest it’s been for years — it’s been eroded by 25 per cent since 2010 — and we’re already losing really, really good talent to other industries or private enterprise because people can’t stay in this sector with the current deal on the table.

We’re finally managing to recruit to vacancies but on a begging-bowl basis, and staff are having to work on really precarious contracts. I would ask vice chancellors to think about how they’re treating their staff. Think about the cost-of-living crisis and how difficult it is to provide really important services and work towards the huge surplus that they’re making every year.

Trust me, none of us want to be on the street out in the cold, but the universities have absolutely pushed us to the limit and we have no choice but to strike. It’s not our choice — they have the choice and we don’t.

The reason we’re striking is for students and future generations of students: it’s really important for them to be on campus, have teaching services in-person and be taught in a regular fashion. It’s been so hard for them over recent years and they understand how important it is that their staff are paid and on correct contracts. Their frustration is with the university, not with the staff. It means a lot to us to know that we’ve got them on board.