Meet the lecturers going on strike, and find out how to get involved
“We can’t win this without student support”
The 25th November marks the beginning of university strikes, taking place across the country. This year will see the University of Birmingham's staff also taking part, after the University and College Union's UoB members voted in their numbers to strike.
But what are the strikes about? Why are lecturers taking part? What does it mean for us as students? How can we get involved and show support? The Birmingham Tab spoke to two lecturers, Tom Cutterham and Amy Burge, to find out more.
Tom Cutterham is a History lecturer, a member of the UCU committee, and a new father. I catch him in his office on a Thursday morning, walking in past posters from former strikes. "I've been a member of the union since I was a PhD student at Oxford" he tells me.
Tom breaks the reasons down into four categories: pensions, gender and ethnic pay gaps, the casualisation of staff contracts, and work load. "We don't know what the ethnicity pay gap is in [the Univeristy of] Birmingham because there's no data on that; we know that the gender pay gap is 19 per cent across the institution, which is ridiculous. And even though I'm a white man who benefits from those things, I don't benefit in the long run because I want my community to be one of justice and equality."
I ask about the workload, an issue across all levels of teaching, "I’ve been working here since 2016, and it’s very clear that every single year, every single term, every single week, I’m doing more than the 35/37 hours a week that we’re supposed to do.
"I went into this job because I like reading and writing history, most of the reading and most of the writing that I do, I do in my own time, for free. We struggle to keep up with just doing the teaching, preparing the teaching, emails and admin and responding to students and giving students the feedback that they deserve, the advice, writing references, personal tutoring, all that just adds up to the point that when we’re being asked to do more stuff by the university it becomes impossible to do our own research and reading, which the students need as well. You want informed, research-active lecturers to come into the classroom and be telling you the cutting edge stuff, not what was going on when you did your PhD ten years ago!"
Half way through my chat with Tom, the Labour manifesto is launched, detailing an end to the casualisation of staff. I ask him if this is a step in the right direction, "Obviously there’s plenty of detail that needs to be fleshed out but sounds like a good idea to me! I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t think ending casualisation is a really important priority."
And how important is student support, I ask Tom. "Basically, we can’t win this without student support."
"Some really clear and obvious ways [to support the strikers]: turn up to the picket lines! Unfortunately it's probably going to be raining but your lecturers will really love to see you to express your support face to face. Students can, especially if they feel really upset about missing classes and stuff, express their complaints to the Vice Chancellor.
"Get together a petition or some kind of collective letter to the university expressing support for the strikes."
Amy Burge is an English lecturer, and has been involved with the union for three years, for which she is also an Equalities Officer. She's also helping to coordinate a series of teach-outs taking place in Selly Oak next week, which you can find out more about here.
For Amy, this strike is a very personal one: "I was on fixed term contracts for six years before I got this job, I’ve worked in six different UK universities in England, Scotland, and Wales, and that has meant moving around the country a lot, it’s meant working all day then doing job applications in the evening.
"It’s something I’ve lived through: I have a permanent position now but I’m very much not pulling up the ladder, it’s about people like me who finally are in a permanent secure position. I want to support those people who aren’t there yet. It’s this kind of two tier academic world, where I’m not doing a different job to my colleagues who are on a fixed term contract but my salary is ten grand higher than them. That is not fair, they are doing the exact same amount of work, and the precarity they’re in justifies them having a higher salary, because they’re not getting the benefits of holiday pay, maternity for instance."
"Over the past six, seven years working in higher education I’ve seen colleagues faint because they’re overworked in offices. I’ve seen myself and others be on fixed term contracts, casual contracts, scrabble to get two or three jobs together in different universities; travel halfway across the country in order to get a job because they couldn’t get one in the town they live in. I’ve seen people have to reemigrate because they haven’t been able to get a particular job, I’ve seen marriages split up across continents."
We get to talking about the gender and ethnicity pay gaps. Whilst the University of Birmingham's gender pay gap is 19 per cent, the ethnicity pay gap is not reported on, as it is not required by law. "For me it is a real priority in terms of making the university a place that is genuinely open and actually I think we owe it to Birmingham as the University of Birmingham to reflect better the city around us." Amy says, referencing the UCU's demands for reporting on the ethnicity pay gap.
As an Equalities Officer, Amy focuses a lot on the gender issues still rife in academia, "I’ve been told by senior people in this institution when I’ve raised the gender pay gap: 'Well fifty years ago there were no women working here!' And I was like 'Well is the implication there that I should be grateful, is it going to take another fifty years?' That’s not a great implication that you as a fifty year old white man saying this to me as a junior woman who’s working really hard in this institution."
As I leave her office at around 4pm on a Friday, I ask her if she has much more to do before going home. She tells me she's got so much to do that it's now a case of prioritising, and her students are always her top priority.