We spoke to the UoL lecturers who were on strike

‘There’s also a sense that you’re standing up for yourself, that you have a say in things… it feels empowering’

As UCU strikes left London campuses deserted last week, The London Tab attended marches, Teach-Outs, and visited the pickets to learn more about our staff’s goals and stories behind the action. Read on to find out what the professors who participated in the strike had to say.

Why are you striking?

Students have been informed about the basic premises of the strike – pension cuts and decreasing wages have created poor job security. But many staff are also on what is known as a “fixed contract.” This is a short-term contract that universities gravitate towards because of current over-enrollment rates. 

One lecturer explained: “They need extra staff to supplement the extra students.

“If student enrollment rates drop in the future, it’s easy to let go of people on fixed contracts by not renewing them. They don’t need to pay redundancy fees and we can be out of a job with no financial income in a matter of moments, and we have no promotion prospects.” 

A UoL professor elaborated on the extreme economic insecurity faced by “staff across the sector [who] have very precarious working contracts”:

“There is an expectation that a large proportion of your career will involve economic insecurity – I graduated in 2015 and have been in three fixed-term positions since then. It’s hard to build a life in a certain country or place like this. ​​Since I was to university in the early 2000s, the proportion of universities’ budgets going to staff [have] dropped a lot. Previously, 60 per cent went to staff but it’s just 49 per cent now. A huge proportion of income is going away from paying for things that students actually use, such as us professors, for example.”

Signs left after a picket

How do current work conditions impact student learning?

It turns out that current staff conditions impact student learning significantly. One key issue a lecturer told The London Tab is the sharp decline of the student to staff ratio: “We’re seeing bigger classes and it’s just turning into a mess of understaffed bureaucracy.

“All academics deeply care about their students’ education, but as universities reduce outlay on staff, our workloads grow beyond nominal working hours.”

A study conducted in 2016 found that while staff are paid for 37.5 hours of work a week on average, many staff reported working over 51 hours a week. And this number has increased since Covid-19, as the staff needed to ensure all course content is digitalised despite never receiving any formal training on doing so. They have also never been offered extra pay for the extra work.

Some staff are currently participating in “Action Short of Strike” (ASOS), meaning they will no longer be offering extra support outside of their working hours. But it is not because they do not wish to support students. 

A professor said with a wistful look: “You care about the students.

At no point are you thinking: ‘I’ll cut back the work I do for students.’ It’s always: ‘[the] student needs help with that, I want to help, I’m passionate about education.’ The impulse to help people becomes overwhelming: we’re taking on pastoral work, looking at drafts, doing voluntary work, and not to mention our research, which we often have to do in our spare time.

“Fixed-term contracts are teaching-focused, whereas an old fashioned academic contract is evenly split between research, teaching, and administrative work. The expectation is you continue to publish research, but if you’re teaching 80% of the time, your research happens in your free time. Since I’m on a fixed-term contract, most of my research does fall into my free time. It’s like I’m always working.” 

What are your hopes and fears surrounding the strikes?

One professor mentioned laughingly: “There’s this union saying, ‘the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.’

“My fear is that we’ll get a mixed response to the strike. The management thinks that they have students on their side considering some SUs chose not to support the strike this year. The more convinced management is that we’re going to break under pressure, the more likely they are to be intransigent. It’s important to know that everything we’ve done for the past 20 years has been defensive. We’ve never gone on strike to demand something new.”

What is the atmosphere of picket lines?

Surprisingly, the picket lines’ atmosphere was pleasant all three days of the strike despite the grave issues. One professor explained: “You’re with colleagues whose company you enjoy, you’re obliged not to work, you can have freer conversations, and not everything is structured around the tasks you have to do. We’ve drawn up a rota for next week, we’re trying to arrange a banner, we’re thinking about bringing speakers, making a playlist, doing picket line baking, and teach-ins. There’s also a sense that you’re standing up for yourself, that you have a say in things… it feels empowering.”

SOAS students gather at a Teach-Out event

Despite some SUs choosing not to support strike action, many students joined their academic staff in solidarity.

The London Tab spoke to Meg Day, an elected student trustee at UCL’s Students’ Union who opposes their decision to not back the industrial action. “Staff and students must unite in the struggle against the marketisation of higher education,” she said. “Mass hyper-exploitation of university workers, particularly those on precarious contracts, comes at the direct expense of students’ education.”

She also urged students to “be prepared to stand in solidarity with strike escalations that may potentially bear them short term repercussions.”

Meg’s comments followed a UCL Students’ Union decision to hold an inaccessible committee meeting where non-student sabbatical officers were an absolute majority. In this meeting, they chose to not support the strikes, foregoing the opinions of the elected student body. 

A spokesperson for the UCL Student Strike Solidarity group said: “Despite this, students have been out on the pickets supporting their lecturers, teaching assistants and other staff in their dispute demanding fair pay, fair workload, an end to casualised work and equality at their workplace. 

“Over 500 UCL students have now come together to call for [the] UCL SU to abandon their opposition to the UCU strike and hold an all-student referendum on the issue.” It seems they have achieved their goal: UCL SU will be holding a referendum on the issue on January 26.

The relentless campaigning for the referendum and support for UCL’s striking academic staff could reflect the stance of a much broader student body: research from the National Union of Students shows that 73 per cent of students support the strikes across the country. In London, at least eight SUs have shown support for industrial action, including LSE, Imperial, Birkbeck, and UAL. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before UCL joins that list.

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