As many of you will have noticed, the university lecturers are striking again. They are disrupting our great universities up and down the UK and grinding research to a halt. How dare they!? Students pay thousands of pounds in tuition fees to get educated and classes are being cancelled! It is unacceptable. Correct, it is unacceptable , it is unacceptable that university officials have allowed this disagreement of lecturers working conditions and pensions get to this stage and into the third consecutive week of strike action. This strike includes not just the lecturers themselves but support staff, librarians and counselling staff too.
If you think it is unfair and ridiculous too you are probably right but students should not blame the disruption on lecturers. They are striking for very valid reasons and as students we should place the blame firmly on the universities. The management of the universities have not been able to manage their employment relations and this is impacting on the service received by students. I stand in solidarity with the lecturers to pensions and their working conditions. You, as a student, can support the strikes further by emailing your principle and not attending class during the times of the strike and informing the university on why you are not attending. If you are not a student then get sharing posts on social media to express solidarity if you can.
Why do I support the collective right to strike?
Well, I am an MSc student studying Human Resource Management and within the subject area of employment relations and I am aware of the complexity it is to strike. This was not done on a whim, as the days of ad hoc strikes are well and truly over. In fact, strikes are a thing of the past in most private companies across the UK due to the hoops employees have to jump through. Moreover, private companies can choose not to acknowledge a trade union and not allow their staff to collectively organise at all. The Conservative Government introduced the Trade Union Act 2016, on top of their butchering of trade union rights and controlling employment relations legislation in the 1980s, which makes striking very difficult.
A strike ballot vote, which is compulsory, must have at least 50% member turnout at a specific location to be made a legal strike. To put that in context the turnout to the last Scottish Holyrood elections was only 55% and the Council Elections this year was only 46.9%, meaning the latter would not have been deemed legal under these conditions. The decision to have a strike also has to get over 40% of the total votes in support of strike action and have 50% of the members turned up to vote. This new legislation also means that fourteen days’ notice is required, as opposed to the traditional seven days, which allows a longer negotiation time before the strike is due to take place and also for the organisation, in this case the universities, to sort our cover for the classes and to try and undermine the strike. In my experience this has not been done at my university and classes have just been cancelled.
As a society we need to publicly back the ability to take part in collective industrial action across all of our sectors. This is so important because the neo-liberal ideology under Conservative and New Labour Governments have made it more and more difficult to strike over the past forty years.
But being a lecturer is a well-paid job with great benefits surely?
Not entirely no. As a higher education sector there is huge inequality between the pay at the top, with Strathclyde’s principle being paid over £335,000 per annum, and those on the bottom of the hierarchy. The top five university principles in Scotland take home around 1.2 million pounds per year between them; plus accommodation and expenses. Many entry level teaching tutor positions and PhD students work on zero hour contracts. This is wide spread across all universities in the UK and this is particularly unfair as many of the employees in this position will have paid out tens of thousands in tuition fees. This precarious working model can create high levels of financial and career uncertainty for these individuals and could impact on their ability to deliver their job role to a high standard. What this illustrates is many of the tutors that hold student’s seminars or plan lectures in an MSc course that costs around £10,000 per pupil could be on a zero hour contract or hired through an agency; this is scandalous.
Another common type of contract that is used within academia is temporary or rolling contracts which are renewed on a specified time basis. These contracts could be renewed every year which provides limited career or financial security for these academic staff. This is clearly a ploy for profit maximisation and is expressing lack of investment in the teaching aspect of universities. This also suggests that the focus for academics and universities is firmly in research which is the biggest money maker for universities.Why do I support the UCU strike specifically?The crux of the current University College Union (UCU) strike is because of threat to the lecturer’s pensions and their working conditions. Some of these are the ‘lucky’ staff who have permanent contracts and have job security but now the proposed changes to the lecturers working conditions could introduce more ‘controlled’ working conditions and threats to their pensions. A good lecturer can deliver a great student experience when they have job satisfaction and they have passion for their topic. This assertion is really basic HRM best practice for all highly skilled job roles and the way to install job satisfaction is through job security, competitive rewards, autonomy and flexibility; all of which lecturers are striking to defend.
The universities have entered into a consumerism model of selling great education to students to improve their career chances and improve employability skills. This would make students the consumer in the model created by the university. Students are the customer in this employment relations labour process and we can choose to align our support with the management or with the employee; in this case the lecturers.
I stand in solidarity with the UCU union members. Do you stand with them too?
Brian Finlay – MSc Human Resource Management Student