‘I’m pretty hopeful’: We spoke to lecturers and students at Queen Mary’s picket line

‘It’s important to stand up for teachers in getting what belongs to them’

University and College Union (UCU) members at Queen Mary, University of London are participating in the current three-day round of strikes as part of ongoing industrial action over pay, pensions, and working conditions.

This is part of national strikes that are the “biggest ever to hit UK universities,” including at more than 30 London universities.

Students, pets, and babies joined the staff at the picket line. The London Tab spoke to some of them to understand their goals and situations.

A lecturer from the linguistics department told The London Tab: “I’m pretty hopeful, especially as this is the first time with a nationwide mandate, so [I’m] pretty hopeful we are going to achieve something”.

They joined the strikes because of their principles, particularly because academic staff are required to work significantly longer hours than they are contracted to.

“I shouldn’t have to be spending six months of the year really overworked. I want to spend time with my family,” they said.

The situation reached a point where they considered quitting: “I think about quitting often, but I can’t imagine giving up on my passion for teaching and education.”

Industrial action doesn’t come without consequences, though. The lecturer said 100 per cent of their pay was deducted for 21 days as they participated in a marking boycott this summer. They claimed this was done “even though I continued teaching and researching.”

According to the UCU, they are one of the more than 100 Queen Mary staff who lost their full pay for 21 days due to the recent marking boycott. It has also been revealed that Queen Mary has now said they would dock the pay of striking staff indefinitely if they did not reschedule classes missed due to the current strikes.

The lecture said actions by upper management feel like “gaslighting and bullying.”

Despite everything, they are still hopeful of a positive outcome. “I’m feeling hopeful. We are set in our resolve to keep going. In time, the stance the university management has will unravel.”

Another academic on the picket line talked about the issues of pay, not just in academia but more widely.

He said: “Jobs are becoming precarious. You used to be able to have a full-time job at a shop and be able to buy a house. That’s just not possible now.” He estimated that due to inflation, his real-term pay had decreased by £5000 from when he started working.

Strikes will undoubtedly affect students. Some of them still end up supporting the union, while others are concerned about how it could affect them.

The London Tab spoke to a third year student frustrated at how their university experience had been disrupted. They said: “My first year had online teaching due to covid, and my second year had strikes. It feels like the quality of my degree is down.” 

But despite being affected, they are supportive of the striking staff. 

“I’m happy people see these systematic issues and are taking action. I believe they will achieve their goal,” they said.

Bogdan, a first year student, is supporting lecturers on the picket line. 

“The education system has worsened for teachers and students alike. Right now, it’s important to stand up against this injustice. It’s important to stand up for teachers in getting what belongs to them,” they said.

Some PhD students from the maths department were also present. One of them told The London Tab: “From what I’ve seen, student solidarity has been fairly high. We’re fighting for things that affect us.”

As PhD students teach as well as study, they resonate with many of the staff’s hardships. 

For example, they claim they earn around £600 for teaching a module for one semester – significantly less than they would make doing private tutoring or other work. This year they started teaching before they had even received their contracts, while a pay increase they were meant to receive to match inflation was only received several months after being promised, only after being followed up.

Despite everything, they are optimistic. “I’m feeling positive about the situation. The turnout has been good. The number of people striking in our department has doubled.”

Another day of strikes will occur on November 30th, with a rally planned in London. Action short of strikes (ASOS) started from November 23, which means participating staff are only doing work as required according to their contract and not covering absent colleagues or working out of contracted hours.

The UCU have said that if no agreement is reached for their demands, action will escalate from the new year, including more strikes and marking boycotts.

Queen Mary’s student union have not yet decided on whether to support the strikes, but the National Union of Students (NUS) has supported the action. 

The university said they cannot respond to the lecturers’ and students’ claims directly, but The London Tab is expected to include the following comments made in a news release by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), “the body that represents Russell Group universities.”

In response to UCU’s first day of strike action, Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s Chief Executive said: “Despite the initial feedback from HE institutions suggesting low and isolated impact on students, it is saddening if even a single student misses out on a lecture because of industrial action.

“Strike action will do nothing to support students, staff or the many HE institutions working hard to avoid redundancies or maintain staffing levels. Our member institutions delivered the August pay uplift despite unprecedented financial challenges.

“Institutions are proving that they have effective mitigations in place to minimise any interruption of learning or services to students and staff. HE institutions are particularly disappointed that UCU is encouraging its members to target students who have endured so many recent disruptions.

“We respect employees’ right to take lawful industrial action, but it is misleading to their members for UCU to ask them to lose pay in pursuit of an unrealistic 13.6 per cent (RPI +2 per cent) pay demand which would cost institutions in the region of £1.5 Billion. UCU leaders must provide its members with a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable because strike action does not create new sector money.

UCU’s own research confirms that, in many parts of the country, HE institutions are important local employers. Those communities simply cannot afford to lose jobs that an unaffordable pay uplift would risk. The biggest concern remains for employees on lower incomes, who are disproportionately impacted by inflation and cost of living pressures. That is why last year’s pay award included an uplift of up to nine per cent for those on the lowest points of the pay spine.”

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