University strike: tens of thousands of staff walk out across UK

Lecturers and other workers begin eight-day action over pay and pensions

Universities across the UK are facing widespread disruption after tens of thousands of lecturers and other staff walked out on strike in protest over pay cuts, increased pension costs and deteriorating conditions.

Union leaders reported a strong show of support on Monday for the industrial action, which will last eight days and could extend into the new year with a second wave of strikes if staff demands are not met.

Pickets had been set up at 60 universities that are taking part in the action, and the University and College Union (UCU) said talks were under way with other institutions about being balloted again to join further action in the new year.

More than 40,000 lecturers, technicians, librarians and other academic and support staff were taking part in the action, but the UCU said it had been processing requests from 3,500 more workers seeking to join the union since the strikes were announced three weeks ago.

As well as pickets, many lecturers are offering alternative teach-outs for their students, and industrial action short of a strike, including staff working strictly to their contracts, will continue until further notice. Mass demonstrations are also being held in Newcastle upon Tyne, Bristol and Manchester.

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, addressed a rally of staff and students at the University of Manchester. She promised to “end the scandal of chancellors getting extortionate pay while people at the other end of the pay scale have to use food banks, which is absolutely disgusting and disgraceful”.

She said under a Labour government academics would not need to strike: “You will not need to be on the picket line because I will be working with you, not against you.”

Kate Green, the Labour candidate for the Greater Manchester constituency of Stretford and Urmston, urged Nancy Rothwell, Manchester’s vice-chancellor, to “listen to the concerns of staff”.

Outside the university, one of the largest academic institutions in the UK, many of the 2,200 UCU members were on the picket line and students waved banners criticising Rothwell’s £260,399 salary. Seth Schindler, a senior lecturer in urban development, was dressed as the former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who Rothwell appointed honorary professor of economics in 2017.

“The university is raiding our pension pot while investing millions of pounds in real estate deals,” Schindler said.

“They are renting space to fast food restaurants while claiming they don’t have enough money to properly fund pensions or equal pay for women and black and minority ethnic staff,” he added, gesturing to a row of new bars and restaurants on university land, including the burger chain Five Guys and the pub Brew Dog.

Wendy Bottero, who has taught sociology in Manchester since 2005, said: “We don’t mind them investing in buildings if they invest in staff too. Investment in staff has dropped to its lowest level and they have broken the pension promises they made last time [during the February 2018 strike]. My pension will halve under the current plans.”

Outside the Williamson building, Julia Horn, a teaching assistant in criminology, said she was on an insecure contract which only paid her for six hours a week, 20 weeks a year. “I was refused for a credit card recently because of it. If I had to pay a mortgage I would have been evicted by now. I know of a colleague who is living in a caravan in her mother’s garden because she can’t afford to live anywhere else,” she said.

Rhodri Jerrett, a lecturer in geology, said poor working conditions shut out women and minority groups. “Often when people start academia they are on very short-term contracts and that makes it very difficult to have a family. You have to sacrifice a lot. You have to work many more hours than you are contracted to do, and that quite obviously marginalises certain groups. Certainly it’s much easier as a man, because at the time of the life when you transfer from your PhD studies to wanting to be an academic is around the time when women are starting to think of children,” he said.

Sarah Darley, a research associate at the school of health sciences, said she was on her fourth fixed-term contract since finishing her doctorate in 2016. “Every 12 months you have to find a new job. You can’t plan for the future. The university says it is very concerned about staff welfare but the one thing they could do to improve wellbeing is to give us more secure employment so that we can plan. You can’t buy a house or get married and have kids when you don’t know if you will have a job in a year’s time.”

Outside the Arthur Lewis humanities building, students stood in solidarity. Thomas Roibas said he despaired of students who had asked for refunds to be compensated for eight days’ lost teaching.

“I think the refund thing is ridiculous,” the first-year law student said. “You don’t pay £9,000 for a specific number of classes. We are paying for a degree and an overall education and we are still getting that. We are striking because the conditions our professors have are not good enough. I would rather miss eight days of class and have professors with better conditions who can do better for me.”

Helen Stott, 18, studying English, said asking for a refund was selfish. “Don’t direct your anger at staff for missing lessons. Direct that anger at the university management. We should have solidarity with our lecturers because they are human beings who deserve a fair wage.”

University employers said they were doing everything they could to minimise the disruption to the million-plus students affected by strike action and urged the union to focus on continuing talks to find a resolution.

It is the second round of widespread industrial action at universities in less than two years. In February last year, 64 universities were affected by 14 days of strike action over changes to the universities superannuation scheme (USS).

Last year the union succeeded in forcing employers to drop plans to change it from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme. It is now challenging the size of staff contributions, calling for it to be capped at 8% of a lecturer’s salary, rather than the 9.6% approved by employers.

USS employers said: “It’s important to remember that members voting ‘yes’ to strike action over pensions account for less than 10% of the scheme’s eligible membership.

Universities are doing everything they can to ensure that students do not lose out. Online learning materials, libraries and student support services will remain available throughout this period to support students’ independent study.”


Sally Weale and Helen Pidd

The GuardianTramp

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