The Strikers Strike Again: The Bitter Reality of the UK Higher Education

On Wednesday, 24 May 2023, the University and College Union (UCU) took the streets, again.

The reason: pension cuts, working conditions and repetitive attacks on university staff pay. This round of strikes comes after months of negotiations with UCEA, and more recently, threats and cut on teachers´salary. With adhering university staff from 145 institutions across the UK, UCU launched a marking boycott in April 2023. At SOAS University, a few steps away from Russel Square, in the heart of London, the #settlethedispute rally started at 1 pm (GMT). University staff and students have been striking for months, and after various (failed) attempts of silencing, their voices are now louder than ever. Fundamental rights have been violated, and students’ futures jeopardised. But when violence hits, peaceful protest is the most lethal weapon. UCU is rising.

The UK is home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Over the centuries, students have come from all corners of the world to educate themselves and enter the job market. However, international students’contributions to the UK should not be undervalued either. Whenever a student has learned, and grown, the UK economy has benefited. Tuition fees, living expenses such as paying for accommodations, and alumni contributions are just some of the economic benefits brought by foreign students. Internationals are also a source of soft power, as they contribute to the multiculturalism that is so characteristic of the UK. Unsurprisingly, the cities
with the highest number of students/universities are much more culturally diverse and London is a perfect example of this.

The UK pension schemes saw a major change in 1992 when the government of former Prime Minister John Major implemented the Pensions Act 1995. This had a major impact on the way pensions are handled today, as it de facto privatised areas of a service that were state-based up until then. The Pension Act of 1995 introduced the State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS), Personal Pensions, Stakeholder Pensions (2001), and the ability to opt out of the (SERPS) which was replaced by the S2P in 2002. The newly established schemes had a major impact on the way university pensions work today. This is relevant to the strikes Higher Education witnessing, and the most recent UCU #settlethedispute rallies. After 1992, UK institutions are commonly referred to in terms of pre-1992 and post-1992, with reference to the very pension scheme changes that still impact today’s management in the academic arena of the UK.

Due to the rise in the cost of living, inflation, Brexit, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Higher Education system is facing harsh challenges. Brexit has reduced the intake of international students, and this has infringed upon the economics of the country, which is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. International students, who pay tuition fees higher than home students, contribute greatly to the economics of the country. These fees allow them to study in the UK and contribute to the functioning of universities themselves (i.e. teachers' and directors’ salaries, infrastructure, and campus security). That is why universities have increased investment in sponsorship and advertising of their curriculums, both independently and via media outlets (see this article).

Workers’ strikes have been witnessed all over the UK, as pensions providers have been cutting pensions. In Higher Education, this can be witnessed vividly. Industrial action has been taking place for years, ever since pension cuts started in 2009. The University & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) which is the “leading voice on employment and reward matters in the UK HE section” has played a major role in the negotiation process as they represent the employers, thus the management of universities falling under their membership. And if UCEA is the voice of management and directors, the Union of Colleges and Universities (UCU) has been the voice of university staff. The UCU negotiates with UCEA over pay and working conditions for academic and research staff as well as pre-1992 institutions. These are handled within the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES). Last year, in 2022, UCU delivered the first national strike action and was the first to win a re-ballot at the national level. The first strike ballot was opened on September 6, 2022. UCU balloted 150 universities across the UK. However, the government-instituted 50% participation threshold impacted the results. This is the reason why UCU fought for a re-ballot, a battle which they won. For the first time, the UCU is now fighting nationally. This has been covered greatly by their PR team, which can be found on their website (see this link).

The UCU campaign #UCUrising was launched in November 2022. A couple of months earlier, by the end of May 2022, UCEA and UCU negotiations seemed to have reached a positive settlement. For this, strikers called off the marking boycott they had set to begin. A year later, UCU is striking again, for the same reason. However, this time around, the marking boycott is on. In April 2023, UCU launched a marking and assessment grading boycott. This has had consequences both on students and on academic staff. Each university has responded differently to the boycott, and while some have had a more considerate response, others have not. The decision to boycott marking has cost strikers’ salaries, which have been reduced in most cases, and withdrawn in fewer cases. At SOAS University of London, academic staff who have adhered to the boycott, are now denied their salary. The approach taken by the SOAS management is counterproductive, to say the least: instead of directing money towards pension cuts and staff salaries, they have invested in private security to impede the disruption caused by industrial action.

Before yesterday, the first day of the #settlethedispute strikes started. At SOAS, the picket line was purposefully set up at the opening time of the institution (around 8 am), to disrupt the service in a peaceful manner. Students are currently in the middle of their end-of-year exams, so the picket line was crossed and will be crossed again in the coming days. Academic staff are aware of this and have not tried to stop them. The relationship between staff and students has always been of mutual respect. Many students are supportive of the strikes and have been fighting hand in hand with their teachers. But the situation is critical, and it is urgent. Even Cambridge University urged UCEA to resume negotiations with UCU, to enable the restart of marking and allow students to graduate. Staff at 145 universities have adhered to the marking boycott, all over the UK. However, UCEA has not resumed negotiations yet, and students are risking their degrees. While university staff is not getting the money they have worked for, the directors are investing in private security, which in the SOAS context has significantly increased since the beginning of the marking boycott in April 2022. This has infringed on the reputation of the university, and on the ‘vibe’ that is so unique to this institution. When will UCEA resume negotiations? Only time will tell.



Anita Barbara Gillone