Why Cambridge supervisors are on the picket lines

The lived experiences behind the strikes

As we exit the second week of UCU strikes, The Tab talked to Cambridge teaching staff (facilitated by UCU representative Matthew Roberts) to understand their personal motivations for going on strike. We found reasons ranging from precarious contracts, underpayment, and exhaustion to pension cuts, anger, and a fundamental lack of security.

“During my PhD, I was working up to five jobs.”

Dr Catherine Oliver, a member of the Geography faculty, details her personal experience with the stressful and under-compensated nature of a career in early academia. She says, “During my PhD, I was working up to five jobs and being bullied by permanent lecturers. It was a traumatic experience but it was a problem on a timer – I’d leave and be forgotten not too far in the future.”

When she came to Cambridge for her post-doc, she thought the situation would improve due to the institution’s reputation and the fact that she was “on one of the supposedly ‘best’ kinds of postdoctoral contracts (three years full time).” However, this was not the case.

Enormous stress has been standard since the day she started and “precarity seeps into every corner” of her life.

Image credits: Cambridge UCU

Dr Oliver shared the questions that keep her stressed and overworked: “How will my salary cover Cambridge expenses? Will I have a job when my contract ends? How much do I need to do beyond my job to try and make myself ’employable’?”

“We are again looking at massive pension cuts.”

Early career academics are not the only ones frustrated. Dr Sue Hackenbeck, a member of the Archaeology faculty who completed her PhD in 2006, claimed that “I’m striking – again – because I’m exhausted and I’m angry. Even after four years of ongoing negotiations between UCU and USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) and years of critical analysis of the USS valuation methods, we are again looking at massive and unnecessary cuts to our pensions.”


Image credits: Cambridge UCU

She adds that severe issues with compensation persist: “University employees haven’t had a real-terms pay rise since 2008 and with inflation running as high as it is right now, we are seeing our salaries declining and cost of living going up, at the same time as the workload is increasing all the time and more and more people are on fixed-term contracts.”

“Students won’t get the best education when we’re struggling to make ends meet.”

Josh, a 4th-year PhD student, says that supervisors are not the only ones impacted by poor working conditions: “Precarity and underpaid work in higher education is harmful to us as workers, but also students who won’t get the best education and support we can provide when we’re struggling to make ends meet.”

Josh has had trying experiences as an undergraduate supervisor. He claims, “I regularly earned below minimum wage after accounting for marking and preparation time and responding to my students. Despite supervising for three years, I never had a contract.”

Image credits: Cambridge UCU

He argues that “this doesn’t have to be the case” and says that he is out supporting the strikes as he believes “every worker deserves a fair contract that gives them access to secure, well-paid work, and a secure retirement.” The strikes are a vital opportunity for university workers “to demand fairer contracts by implementing nationally agreed frameworks to tackle low-pay, precarity and casualisation.”

“Precarity is just not sustainable.”

The striking supervisors we spoke to were all in agreement about the devastating long-term impacts of precarity. Dr Oliver shares that “Precarity] makes workers more vulnerable to victimisation, abuse, and bullying – unable to speak up, and more likely to be abandoned or suffer non-renewal of contracts if they do.”

Image credits: Cambridge UCU

For her personally, she adds that “It also means that I can’t plan a future: I won’t be able to stay in Cambridge, have the security to have a family, and I can’t choose where my next job will be, so I am stuck hundreds of miles from my family and friends. And for what? A job that can’t pay or treat people equally (or enough), a pension that’s been decimated, a workload that makes me ill, and no hope of security.”

Most lamentably, Dr Oliver emphasizes that she is better off than many – “I am not alone, and by far not suffering the most: this is ‘the best’ that early-career academics can hope for.”

“It’s just not sustainable,” says Dr Hackenbeck, “and we need things to change.”

You can find more information about Cambridge UCU strikes and events here.

The University of Cambridge has been contacted for comment.

Feature image credits: Cambridge UCU

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