‘Our mental health is suffering’: What Lincoln lecturers want students to know about the strikes
‘We love our students but we want the same support’
Towards the end of November 2022, lecturers at universities across the country went on strike, including many members of staff at the University of Lincoln. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted for strike action earlier this year in protest of pay, pensions and working conditions in higher education. But some lecturers are worried that not all students know why their learning is being disrupted. Conversations with striking staff on the picket lines at the University of Lincoln revealed their main reasons for taking strike action and why they want students to know about it.
Disclaimer – most of the people who spoke to The Lincoln Tab for this article wished to remain anonymous to protect their interests.
Casualisation and temporary contracts
Many university academics are only employed on temporary contracts, which are sometimes for as little as one academic year. As well as this, there is the casualisation of the work, leaving staff paid only hourly and with no set hours. This leaves some researchers and lecturers with no job security and many of those on strike in Lincoln said it’s had a knock on effect on their mental health, especially with the current cost of living crisis.
One lecturer said: “There is no planning for the future as we are continuously having to apply for new positions. The lack of financial security is even worse with the cost of living crisis.” Another lecturer, who has a permanent position, said: “I’m here for my colleagues who are on casual contracts, if we can make a difference now, our staff have a better chance of surviving the winter.”
Real terms pay cuts
One of the biggest factors in the UCU strike is pay. With rising levels of inflation, lecturers say they have actually taken pay cuts, especially when this is compared with the rising workload.
One lecturer said: “With increases below inflation, we have effectively taken about a seven percent pay cut, which is incredibly difficult with the cost of living crisis.” Another academic: “By underpaying staff, they are trying to reduce their wage bill and squeeze more work out of people.”
There are also issues surrounding pay gaps for marginalised groups. The UCU website says that the gender pay gap in higher education in the UK stands at 15 per cent. Many of the lecturers on the picket line in Lincoln said this was one of the main reasons they are on strike.
More striking University of Lincoln staff gave increased workloads as one of their main reasons for striking.
One lecturer said: “They have cut admin staff and this has created more work for teaching staff.” Many lecturers also said that only working their contracted hours would leave them massively behind on work. Another added that: “The university relies on the goodwill of staff. During the pandemic there was so much pressure on lecturers immediately moving work online.” Dr. Owen Clayton, chair of the University of Lincoln’s branch of the UCU, said: “16 per cent of higher education staff work two extra days completely for free.”
One of the most common reasons given by Lincoln staff on strike was that their mental health was being negatively affected by their job in some way and feel they have not had enough support from the university.
One lecturer said: “During the pandemic it was awful. We were working crazy hours supporting our students, but with no mental health support for ourselves. We love our students and it’s a pleasure to teach, but we want the same support.” Another lecturer pointed out that the mental health problem has only been made worse by the cost of living crisis and pay rises below inflation. They asked: “How can students be taught by people who are depressed, hungry or homeless?”. Dr. Clayton then added: “53 per cent of higher education staff are presenting with signs of mental health problems.”
They are doing this to benefit students as well
University of Lincoln staff who are on strike aren’t doing this to deliberately disrupt their students’ learning, but they can’t see another way to effectively take a stand.
One academic said: “We want to see our students do well, but management isn’t very forthcoming to negotiate and this is the only thing we can do as leverage.” Many spoke about how it wasn’t an easy choice to go on strike, with another academic saying: “It was a really difficult decision and we’ve been really anxious about it, but our mental health is suffering. At the end of the day, good working conditions equals good learning conditions.”
A spokesperson for University of Lincoln said: “The University of Lincoln’s priority will always be to put students first. Our focus is on minimising disruption to teaching and the student experience.
“About one in three academic staff at Lincoln are members of UCU. Most colleagues across the university are not participating in the industrial action.
“Timetabled teaching has gone ahead in most areas and key services like the Library and Student Support Centre have been open on the three days of strike action. We will ensure students’ learning outcomes are safeguarded if teaching sessions have been impacted – for example, by adapting assessment methods where necessary.
“UCU’s industrial action is mandated by a national aggregated ballot of UCU members affecting 150 universities. The union’s demand of a pay increase of two per cent above the rate of inflation (namely 12 per cent) is unaffordable for most universities. The university implemented the offered national pay increase this summer of three per cent for all staff and nine per cent for colleagues on the lowest salaries so all university staff could benefit from a pay rise and so we could set our budgets for the 2022/23 academic year.
“A broad range of wellbeing support is available for staff and students.”