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‘It’s awful going on strike’: How Leeds lecturers actually feel about striking

It’s not fun taking those days off

It’s February 2020, the baby challenge just happened on love island, Biscoff spread is on offer at ASDA, and a little bit of cooling rain just trickled onto your hungover cheek. Life is good. BUT WAIT, on the way to your lecture you see that rebellious staff and students alike have formed The Great Wall of Academia on Parkinson steps.

With a sigh, you realise you’ve just walked 20 minutes in the rain only to see your lecturer leading a chant next to the fancy new lift. No lecture for you. You’re irritated at yourself for getting out of bed, inspired by the rallying protesters, but also a little pissed off at the whole situation.

The UCU want to end casualisation, achieve pay equality (between all genders, races, sexualities), increase pay (in line with inflation), and address workloads. But how do Leeds lecturers actually feel about getting out on those steps and fighting for their right?

What does the current state of higher education mean for academics?

Whilst students are complaining about missing uni because of the strikes, members of staff are facing the possibility that an academic career is no longer a possibility. In an interview with The Leeds Tab, a lecturer from the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds, who requested to remain anonymous, says 'at some point something has to give. This cannot go on forever'.

They noted two things have happened in the past ten years:

Firstly, there's been a decline in wages compared to inflation, meaning junior members of staff miss out. Wages 'are simply not sufficient for those at the bottom of the academic hierarchy to enjoy a comfortable existence'.

Secondly, the amount of work has increased dramatically, making it a 'ridiculously competitive' environment prone to causing staff burnout and low self esteem.

Some academic staff are effectively paid less than minimum wage

This is supported by Rebecca Starr, a PHD student and member of teaching staff from the School of Fine Art, History of Art, and Cultural Studies. She says her workload means she is getting paid less than minimum wage so the current standards of the higher education system means quitting her career may be the only option.

'Unfortunately, many staff members at the university are under tremendous pressure to complete duties which extend beyond the hours for which they are contracted and paid. For example, as an hourly-paid seminar assistant, I often have to work beyond my contracted hours to complete tasks and adhere to expectations of staff and students (e.g. module preparation, administration duties, responding promptly to emails, personal tutorials, etc.) meaning that I am working for less than the minimum wage.'

'Whilst teaching in higher education is something that I enjoy, in its current state, it is not a viable future career option given the pressures to perform, unrealistic workloads and knowing that I'm working in an environment where pay gaps based on gender and ethnicity still exist.'

What do Uni of Leeds’ academic staff think about how the strikes have been handled?

The member of POLIS staff has expressed concerns at the intentional manipulative handling of blame by university management.

‘One thing that has really really upset me, is the way that our Vice Chancellor and the university management in Leeds have tried to frame the strike as mean, selfish lecturers depriving students of their education’

'What I really object to is the attempts to deflect responsibility for the failing of senior management in Leeds and in the higher education sector in general by trying to pit students against striking staff… I think that hasn’t worked anywhere near as well as they had anticipated’.

'There has been an assumption on the part of lots of senior people in the university that we will do lots of additional work and additional labour out of our own sense of goodwill and that we will accept worsening pay and conditions'.

Do striking staff feel bad about letting students down?

This member of staff also expressed that 'it's shit going on strike', as during this time they are not paid and cannot do their jobs. They say striking staff do feel immense regret for disrupting the learning of students, but are striking for solidarity with colleagues and the greater good.

'It is regrettable that students find themselves in the crossfire of a dispute that is fundamentally not their problem’

'I think maybe a lot of students don’t realise just quite how common it is for members of teaching staff to be precariously employed under fixed term contracts'.

Whilst this is little comfort as deadlines are approaching and you're gradually sinking into a stress hole, Starr stresses that 'striking is never an easy option and always the last resort as the last thing that staff want to do is disrupt education'.

What can students do to support the strikes?

Starr says students wishing to support the UCU should email the vice chancellor, Sir Alan Langlands, to ask that university management listen to staff concerns. you can do that here.

The member of POLIS staff says that supportive emails 'make my day', and that emailing the Vice Chancellor is also important but 'he's on his way out, he probably doesn't care' (savage).

The real question: Can we get that refund?

Honestly? Probably not. It appears reimbursements are being made on a case-by-case basis, and not all universities are making them. The University of Sussex offered up to £100 to students in December for distress and inconvenience. One international student was paid £1283.75 in compensation via the OIA. Bristol has rejected any reimbursement claims, saying they would only be able to offer £10 a head, anyway.

Leeds, however, has remained quiet.

You probably saw it on Facebook, but a petition for fair reimbursements for students has just hit 15,000 signatures and can be signed here.

It is also possible to complain to the Office for Students to apply for compensation if your university does not adequately mitigate the strike action.

Information for students about the strikes at the University of Leeds can be found here.