A letter to my students

As you will know, the University and College Union have called a strike. As a union member I will be striking. I believe you deserve an explanation, so I would like to set out my view of the issues at stake.

I hope you will understand that striking is a difficult decision. None of us want to strike. I have spent a lot of time preparing my teaching (much of it beyond my contracted hours), I thoroughly enjoy our sessions, and I want all of you to get the most out of studying with me. Nevertheless, this action has become necessary because of the uncompromising stance of Universities UK, the body which represents universities as employers.

The strike is in response to a decision by UUK regarding staff pensions. Without going into technicalities (for more information, see this UCU webpage), the value of an average individual pension will fall by an estimated £200,000. This decision has been taken without our consent, and UUK have refused to negotiate with our union. UUK’s justification for this action rests on statistics which have been challenged (see this excellent discussion), and in fact they have used contradictory statistics to support different claims (as discussed in this open letter by Reading’s UCU branch). I am sure you can guess what would happen if you took such an inconsistent approach to the evidence in one of your assignments.

There is also a wider context here. Due to a combination of minimal pay rises and inflation, across the sector academic staff have experienced a real-terms pay cut of around 14% since 2009 (see here and here), while university managers’ salaries have risen and are now, on average, over £250,000 p.a. (see here). During this period universities have also introduced more and more temporary, casualised, and exploitative contracts, especially for junior staff (see here). Some universities have set up subsidiary companies to manage their staff and have been criticised for these employment practices (see here). This squeeze on staff has occurred even though the sector as a whole is ‘in a financially sound position’ according to HEFCE, with a surplus of £1.5 billion, almost double what it was just a few years ago (see here).

These trends represent both the logic and the results of commercialisation. Though student fees have sky-rocketed, staff in higher education are expected to do more and more with less and less support, while at the same time facing continual and mounting pressure to secure funding for and deliver high-quality research.

I am therefore striking not just because UUK’s decision on our pensions is unacceptable, but because I believe that academia needs to change – for our sake, and for yours. The UK’s higher education sector will struggle to maintain its traditionally excellent standards under the current circumstances. As the working conditions and security of staff deteriorate, so our teaching (and our research) will deteriorate, which will ultimately harm our students.

A university is more than just an institution, a campus, a brand, or a business. It is a community, and a university’s greatest value lies in its people – students and staff of all kinds. Only by supporting both students and staff will universities achieve their goals. It is time for UUK to remember this, and for the sector as a whole to treat its people better.

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