Student “fully backs” strike as university tutors demand better pay and working hours

Despite losing out on paid-for teaching, William Green is supportive of the action

This week, the UCU, University and College Union, is on strike.

I’m an undergraduate student, and I’m losing around ten hours of contact time, with about six more being lost if the strike continues into next week. For some modules I’ll lose two weeks of teaching time.

Some lectures may go ahead – I simply don’t know. The situation is unclear, and communication has been dire. Some tutors seem to take pleasure in not informing us of their intentions. It’s hard to imagine a less coherent learning experience.

Yet, despite all this, I fully back the strike.

That’s largely because the strike is based upon several well-founded grievances. One major issue is that of pensions. According to the UCU, changes to the current pension scheme will leave staff £240,000 worse off in retirement.

Staff also feel they are underpaid, following a series of below-inflation pay rises, which come alongside huge investments in campuses across the country in an increasingly frantic attempt to draw in new students.

“For me, challenging the universities’ reliance on casual contracts is vital”

Others are frustrated by the movement towards more casual work. An anonymous tutor said: “For me, challenging the universities’ reliance on casual contracts is vital.

“Like a lot of staff, I’m paid by the hour and I’ve been relying on short term, temporary contracts for a number of years.

“For staff in my position, it would be much better if we could focus on students’ learning rather than worrying about where the next month’s rent is going to come from.”

The dependence on hourly pay is even more worrying considering the fact many staff don’t have the opportunity to work long hours.

In a department like English, for example, there may be a large number of students, but they don’t spend much time getting taught. This lack of teaching opportunity creates a Catch-22 situation. Staff can’t spend more time teaching because they aren’t senior enough, and they can’t get promoted because they don’t have enough teaching experience.

“Almost all of us work hours well over those legally allowed”

On the other hand, some staff are working far too many hours. Another tutor added: “We’re also on strike about workloads. Almost all of us work hours well over those legally allowed (48 a week, under the Working Time Directive).”

Many members of staff don’t have fixed hours, the tutor explaining how “we’re just supposed to work until our contractual responsibilities are completed, but those responsibilities grow every year.”

The tutor continued: “I counted my hours of work in 2016-17 twice, and it was 60 and 72 hours a week respectively… that doesn’t even catch up on all the e-mail, requests for help from student or admin roles, it just keeps teaching and marking needs met, and research always, always, has to wait, even though it’s what we get hired for and promoted for producing.”

Here is the other side of that Catch-22. Staff don’t have the time to research, so promotion opportunities are limited here, too. Meanwhile, the pressure upon them grows and grows. There’s a lot of talk – rightly – about student mental health, but it would seem that some universities are unconcerned about the mental health of their own employees.

I don’t have many contact hours, so perhaps I’m not the best-placed to talk about the disruptive effect on lectures, seminars and lab sessions. Some of my friends have felt no effect on their courses – not least because some universities have reading weeks this week.

Others are looking forward to a week off university, either because they’re overloaded with work or because they fancy more time in bed. A friend at Oxford claimed, “lectures are cancelled but everything else runs normally.” This is not a universal strike, and experiences of it are highly different.

“This lack of teaching opportunity creates a Catch-22 situation”

The one thing that remains universal is that strikes are always uncomfortable for everyone. Those involved lose out on pay. Those not involved, possibly because of the financial cost, may lose friendships. Consumers – those who use the service – lose out on that service. And the employer loses some of its reputation.

But there are times when striking is the right thing to do. This occasion is one of them.

Staff aren’t angling for huge pay rises; they don’t want to damage students’ education. They are facing a very real problem which could affect their finances in the long-term – not to mention those who suffer from short-term financial insecurity due to casual work.

Even though students are losing out on education they’ve paid for, there’s widespread support for the strike on campus. Considering the lecturers’ problems, that’s no real surprise.

The second tutor sums it up well: “It’s become very clear that the University simply does not care if it hurts us, as in actively damages our health and long-term livelihood, as long as it gets everything out of us it can before we choose to, or have to quit.

“Actually keeping good staff happy isn’t something they think worthwhile. And so we’re on strike, just to be heard in our pain.”

Who can argue with that?

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