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Editorial: Why we all need the UCU to win a better deal from universities

HARSH penalties for students who refuse to cross picket lines or otherwise demonstrate solidarity with striking lecturers show university bosses are alarmed at the scale of support for the UCU strike.

Staff are walking out at 74 universities for 14 days. The loss of 14 days’ pay will mean real hardship for many strikers and their willingness to pay that price indicates just how angry workers are.

Management appear to be adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, at least if the University of Leicester’s “offer” to spread pay deductions over three months if staff agree not to protest on campus is anything to go by.

This bid to hide the reality of industrial action from those affected, which must also be seen as an attempt to stop staff explaining the reasons for their action to students, has sinister parallels with the misleading announcements posted on public transport during strikes and even with last year’s court ruling against postal workers’ right to strike, which effectively banned their union the CWU from trying to win workers to its cause in the workplace itself.

Rather than pleading poverty — not a good look from vice-chancellors whose own inflated pay packets have become a national scandal — universities need to ask themselves why workers in higher education are so fed up that strike action in the sector has become more frequent and more serious over recent years.

And the answers aren’t hard to find. Changes to pensions that will leave typical scheme members £240,000 worse off over their lifetime, a 10-year squeeze on pay that means the average worker in higher education takes home 20 per cent less in real terms than they did in 2009 and creeping casualisation that has led to one in three university staff stuck on fixed-term contracts combine to make work in the field increasingly intolerable.

When we read about the march of zero-hours contracts and precarious work, most of us think of workers in fast food, courier services or the grim warehouses of delivery giants like Amazon. Yet such super-exploitation is rife in academia. 

Small wonder that striking staff have been backed by the National Union of Students, with countless examples of lecturers’ own students showing up to support them on picket lines. 

With the cost of higher education now lumping graduates with decades of debt, you might expect students to resent any withdrawal of tuition they are paying for.

But many will be more than familiar with the insufferable realities of insecure work. And many can also see that we all have an interest in UCU members winning in their showdown with universities.

That’s true of students directly, since the high staff turnover associated with zero-hours contracts and courses which appear and disappear depending on how many people sign up in any given year are having a detrimental impact on learning.

But it’s also true that higher education workers are fighting attacks on their pay, pensions and conditions which are being seen in many other sectors.

We must not fall for the management lie that we should reconcile ourselves to paying more into smaller pensions, that real wages can only go down or that secure work on a proper wage is a thing of the past.

These are not consequences of our living longer or of competition from abroad. They are part of a massive assault on labour by capital as it seeks to maximise profit and reduce workers, even in “middle-class” occupations, to powerless wage-slaves. There is no shortage of money in a country with more than 150 billionaires. 

Universities will insist that the broader funding picture is a matter to take up with government, not them. But unless we stand together to say we’ve had enough, the relentless downward pressure on all our living standards will continue.


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