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The UCU strike: A struggle for workers and a struggle for the future of higher education


photo courtesy of TES


On Wednesday 25th May, university staff across the country will walk out as part of a two-day strike called by the University and College Union (UCU). The strike action represents a necessary response to ongoing disputes over pay, and comes following strong support from UCU members.


As the UCU have pointed out, since 2009 university staff have suffered a real terms pay decrease of 14.5%. It is unsurprising then that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) offer of a 1.1% rise, marginally improved from 1%, has been branded ‘insulting’. Whilst this derisory offer constitutes cause for opposition in its own right, the strike action should be viewed as part of a much larger picture.


This strike represents an important moment of resistance to widening economic inequality. As university staff have experienced a real-terms pay-cut, university vice-chancellors have enjoyed an average pay-rise of 14% over the last five years. This disparity is compounded by a report finding that vice chancellors job-perks bring about a life of luxury hotels, residence in multi-million-pound university properties and first-class air travel. During his role as Vice Chancellor at the University of Leeds, Michael Arthur, for example, travelled to work in a helicopter.


Whilst university vice-chancellors get richer, and universities report record running surpluses from student fees, university staff are increasingly faced with zero-hours and other casualised contracts and are forced to work over-time in order to cope with unrealistic workloads riddled with bureaucracy. The strike action therefore also calls for university staff to resist pressures to overwork and work only to contracted hours.


Whilst some might reasonably argue that university staff such as lecturers are already relatively well paid, it is apparent then that the disparities between university bosses and their staff reflect wider societal trends. Under this punitive Conservative government, money is increasingly filtered to those at the top whilst workers are increasingly estranged from the profits of their labour. Those of us seeking to resist growing inequality must begin to recognize the commonalities in our struggles and see this not just as a strike of university staff, but a strike of workers that should be waged on all fronts. Indeed, those of us that supported the junior doctors in their important battle, must now support higher education staff and continue to support other workers globally. It is only through such shared struggle that we can begin to reverse the imposition of widening inequality.


Not only is this strike about the widening gap between the rich and the rest, but it is also the future of our higher education system. This is a strike that is about beginning to take back control of our higher education institutions.


Higher education has been, and continues to be, under-siege from a government of Etonian elites who appear hell-bent on maintaining their inherited privileges. It was revealed last month that graduates from UK universities amass more debt than their US counterparts. Given the notoriety of US educational inequality, this should represent a stark warning. However, rather than seeking to remove this crippling debt, or reinstate the maintenance grants that supported students from low-income backgrounds, this week the government announced plans to advance their plans for the marketisation of higher education by enabling ‘elite’ universities to increase their fees. Such a system will inevitably lead to a two-tier education system that is reflective of wealth, rather than ability or merit. (One suggested form of resistance has been for students to boycott the National Student Survey that would be used to determine university fees). Of course, whilst university students are paying more, university staff are receiving less.


For those of us interested in a more equitable society, we must fight to transform higher education on every level. This is a fight that must see students and staff working together. A fight that must strive for free education for all. A fight that seeks to decolonize curricula and university spaces, to challenge the underrepresentation of staff from racially minoritized backgrounds, to resist the racist prevent agenda, to remove the shameful gender pay gap, and to create an educational environment that enables all to flourish. This is a fight that should ensure university staff are paid fairly for their work. To transform higher education, and to transform society, we must recognize the interconnections of these struggles and unite as staff, students and workers on the picket line.