‘Striking is very painful’: We asked Lancs Uni lecturers why they’re striking

‘Because lecturers are so bound up with their students, any action they take automatically has an impact on the students themselves’

A new round of staff strikes have been announced across 68 universities in the UK, including Lancaster, which will begin this week and last five days between Monday 14th and Friday 18th of February, two further days of action on Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd, and three final days from Monday 28th and Wednesday 2nd of March.

Not all staff are members of the UCU, and some may not have chosen to strike this time around, but a significant proportion will take to picket lines on campus over the three week period to protest working conditions and pension security.

After asking students for their opinions on the strikes this term, we contacted lecturers from a number of different departments to ask whether they were striking (or not) and what their personal reasons were for doing so.

What are your personal reasons for taking part in the strike action?

An anonymous physics lecturer summarised their reasons for striking in one sentence: “Lancaster University management continues to abuse the collegiality and dedication of its academic staff, knowing that we take pride in our research and teaching, and that we truly care about our students and colleagues and will do our best even if it damages us.”

A psychology lecturer approached the issue from a scientific viewpoint, they said: “I look for evidence, so here it is: They refuse to agree that we need an action plan to address the large pay gaps that are due to gendre, race, etc. (I can’t believe that we need to ask for this in 2022).”

Many lecturers criticised the marketisation of higher education, one said: “The university sector has changed enormously in the past few decades. Students have been re-positioned as consumers, and the autonomy of academics has been increasingly eroded.

“Pressures come in from all sides: pressures to publish in the ‘right’ journals to get good results in the REF, to get consistently good student feedback to score highly in the NSS (which is not necessarily the same as teaching well), to apply for big grants and get research money in. These pressures are even more intense for academics new to the profession who are often working in very precarious conditions, on fixed-term or even hourly contracts, working unpaid on their research to try and be employable in a job market that seems impossibly competitive.”

One of the other main reasons for strikes is due to the university’s undermining of pensions benefits. One anonymous lecturer said: “Pensions benefits have been hugely eroded, and pensions will soon become too expensive for many new academics to consider joining. The combined effect of workload pressures, precarity, and inequality is dangerous.

“In a recent UCU survey, four in five of HE staff surveyed are struggling with workload, and 86 per cent of staff surveyed had been directed towards support for mental health because of workload. As an individual, there is not much I can do to change this situation, which is shaped by government policy, university management, and broader socioeconomic factors. The only possible chance we as academics have of addressing any of this is through collective action. Therefore I participate in the actions which have been democratically voted for within my union, including strike action.”

Do you feel conflicted about striking due to the student disruption it causes, or any other reasons?

An anonymous creative writing lecturer described the turmoil they faced when deciding whether or not to participate in the strikes, they said: “None of us wants our students’ work and lives to be disrupted in this way. We like them and care for them, and want the best for them.”

A psychology lecturer said: “We wouldn’t be doing this unless we felt a quiet desperation”, they explained, “that’s why we are so happy that student unions across the country have written messages of support for the strike.”

They believe the university “can see that lecturers who are stressed, burned out, have had their pay cut by 20 per cent and will have their pensions cut by 35 per cent when they retire, are being forced to take action against their will.”

An anonymous physics lecturer was upset on the behalf of students given “the year we’ve all just had” but deemed the action “necessary if we are going to maintain a university system that any of us recognise as such in this country.”

They said: “Too many of my colleagues have already left the UK and/or academia. That’s a very bad situation for students and for the rest of us academics who are still here, and it’s a huge change from, say, two decades ago when people who got a lectureship in the UK would very likely stay until retirement.”

An anonymous linguistics and English language lecturer stressed their awareness of the “disruption and anxiety” strikes can cause both staff and students. They said: “Striking is a last resort when all other attempts at negotiation have broken down.”

Do you believe striking is the best way to achieve results?

An anonymous linguistics and English language lecturer cited the 2018 pension strikes as an example of a time when strikes were successful as they both “achieved and improved a great deal”.

They went on to say: “The best way to achieve results is through negotiation, but that is only possible when employers and employees can negotiate with each other in good faith. When this breaks down, or when negotiations fail, striking can become the only option.”

One anonymous psychology lecturer described the strikes as “painful”, pointing out that “nobody wants to give up half a month’s salary without good reason”.

The lecturer emphasised the struggle faced by younger members of staff on precarious or temporary employment as these contracts “don’t pay very well in the first place”. They said: “We can’t do much as individuals against a powerful employer – it’s only by joining together in collective strike action that we can make enough of a difference. By seeing how unhappy we are, and how much we are prepared to sacrifice, we hope to get them to change their minds.”

An anonymous creative writing lecturer argued that striking may not be the best way to achieve results. Instead, unions are good for “collective bargaining”.

They went on to say: “Most people would just see [strikes] as whinging by pampered members of the bourgeoisie. It’s not going to get public support, and could well drive a wedge between students and teachers.”

How can students support the strike action?

Multiple lecturers highlighted that visiting the picket lines themselves was the most obvious way students could support strikers. Students were also encouraged to participate in teach-ins, which are organised on strike days and show their enthusiasm by standing alongside strikers as physically as possible.

However, support can also be given remotely. Lecturers suggested that students email the Vice-Chancellor and ask him to take action on paying staff properly, on tackling the gender-pay gap, on working conditions for younger staff and on the threats to pensions of staff when they retire.

Additionally, in the spirit of minimising disruption one lecturer suggested that students should just “continue doing work for seminars as they otherwise would have.”

A Lancaster University spokesperson said: “A small number of staff at Lancaster University are participating in this week’s national industrial action which sees 68 UK universities take part in strike action.

“The action follows two separate national ballots in November 2021 – one over the recent USS pension valuation, and one over sector pay and working conditions – in which UCU members voted in favour of taking strike action across a number of universities.

“Staff across the University are taking steps to try to ensure there is as little disruption as possible for students during this time. As not all staff are members of the staff union the impact of the strike will be varied across different parts of the University. Where disruption has been unavoidable we are deeply sorry.

“Departments are notifying students how they can obtain help and advice during the industrial action and those students with concerns specific to their programme should approach a member of department such as their Programme Director or Supervisor.”

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