Direct your anger at the people in charge, UCU boss tells students ahead of new vote on strikes

The Tab sat down with UCU boss Jo Grady to discuss the planned university staff strikes

University lecturer strikes are likely to take place before Christmas, with staff voting in the next couple of weeks on whether to pursue industrial action.

The same disputes that triggered each bout of strikes over the last four years still seem to be unresolved. University staff are still unhappy with slashed pensions, precarious contracts as well as racial and gender inequality within the sector.

But what do lecturer strikes mean for students? Is it fair that students pay for their education while lecturers are striking? And what actual evidence is there that the strikes will work and get the desired result. The Tab put these questions to Jo Grady, head of the University and College Union, who has previously said that strikes are now “inevitable.” Here’s what she had to say:

How will lecturer strikes benefit students?

Lecturer strikes obviously mean that there is likely to be a period of time when students will miss out on teaching. In a recent interview with The Tab, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “Lecturers going on strike will not help students in any way because they will be losing out on valuable teaching time they’re now able to get.”

Jo Grady strongly disagrees with this statement. She believes that the improvement of working conditions for staff will only have positive implications for students. “It’s a complete misdirection of blame to say that students or staff won’t benefit from staff taking strike action,” Grady told The Tab. “We have to ask why university managers, year after year, are happy to let chaos reign in the sector because they either won’t pay staff properly, put staff on proper contracts and stop attacking their pensions.”

“If staff, rather than have to be in some perpetual battle with the management of the university, were able to invest that time motivation and energy into spending time with students, that would be a huge saving for the sector.”

What actual evidence is there to suggest strikes will work?

There have been university staff strikes every year since 2018. The Tab asked Jo Grady if the strikes are actually achieving anything.

Grady points to the 2018 lecturer strikes, describing the 14 days of action as an historic dispute. At the time, university employers were trying to downgrade staff pensions from a defined benefit (DB) scheme to a defined contribution (DC) scheme.

A DC pension is based on how much you’ve contributed to your pension and how much this money has grown over time. A DB pension offers employees a set benefit every year after they retire. This benefit doesn’t depend on investment and is based on things like your final salary and the length of time you’ve worked for an employer. Going from a DB scheme to a DC scheme would have cut staff pensions massively.

“UCU is the only union that has successfully managed to prevent the transferral of a scheme from a DB to some form of DC,” Grady told The Tab. “It’s achieved a completely historic, unprecedented turnaround of our employer. If we hadn’t been able to do all the industrial action in 2018, everybody now would be on a far worse pension.”

The proposed round of strikes for this term are focused on maintaining that “victory,” Grady says. “Employers agreed that we can keep a DB scheme but said we need to cut 30 per cent of it.

“When they say that it’s terrible that lecturers and university staff are going on strike, that is a position that they have triggered. This is, as far as I’m concerned, employer initiated industrial action.”

Should students be refunded for the time when lecturers are on strike?

Obviously with students paying £9,250 per year for their education, it’s likely that many will be angry about the tuition they could miss during strikes.

While Jo Grady doesn’t agree with the concept of tuition fees whatsoever, she told The Tab: “It’s only appropriate that students, if there are strikes, should be asking universities what are you doing with the money you are saving because you’re not paying staff.”

What can students do to support striking lecturers?

Grady thinks that students have a unique opportunity to support their striking lecturers and as evidenced by scenes like those in Manchester this year, are well-placed to make change happen.

Pointing to Michelle Donelan’s comments, Grady says: “Don’t allow yourself to be weaponised by managers who speak on your behalf. Direct your anger at the people who are in a position to make a change, not the people that are having their pensions stolen.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• University staff are voting on whether they should strike this term

• ‘Lecturers going on strike will not help students in any way,’ says universities minister

• After a year of Covid disruption, lecturer strikes are now ‘inevitable,’ says UCU boss