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University Staff Strike Over Mental Health Crisis

Stephen Delahunty reports on why up to 50,000 university staff are striking for better conditions.

Photo: Courtauld UCU branch
University Staff Strike Over Mental Health Crisis

Stephen Delahunty reports on why up to 50,000 university staff are striking for better conditions.

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Universities are in the midst of a mental health crisis as poor pay and casual work are affecting the physical and mental health of staff and having a negative impact on students’ learning. 

Up to 50,000 lecturers, technicians, librarians and other academic and support staff at 74 University and College Union (UCU) branches have been on strike since 20 February 20 – potentially affecting about 1.2 million students through lost lectures and tutorials – to address what the union calls “the four fights” and pensions.

Those on strike say they are working for universities which are operating under an economic model that puts unwarranted pressure on overworked staff to support the amount of students the system produces. Many students have expressed their support for staff and are pushing for compensation from university managers.

Pay, workload, casualisation and equality are at the forefront of the latest dispute that has highlighted how teaching staff on short-term contracts often earn less than the minimum wage. The sector’s economic model has become over-reliant on casual employment and temporary contracts, while full-time staff on 35-hour a week contracts are often working more than 50 hours, meaning more than a third of their work is unpaid.

Current proposals for changes to the pension system will see a typical member pay around £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement – leaving them £240,000 worse off in total. 

Previous research by the UCU has shown that more than two-fifths of staff on casual contracts, such as zero-hours contracts, in universities and colleges have struggled to pay household bills. At the same time, casualisation has led to second-class academic citizens; mere ‘resources’ to be deployed to further strategic visions of vice chancellors and governing boards.

“I think PhD students have high instances of mental health concerns for a variety of reasons, including research and teaching pressures, and we’re seeing an epidemic rise in undergraduate mental health problems,” Dr Stephen Whiteman, a senior lecturer of art and architecture of China and head of the research degrees programme at the Courtauld Institute of Art, said.

Dr Whiteman described the number of wellbeing programmes universities offer – such as yoga, mindfulness, and support from mental health counsellors – as a “sticking plaster”.

Professor Joanna Woodall, chair of the Courtauld’s UCU branch, asked: “Why do we need this? I might not need to be mindful and do yoga if I wasn’t overworked and underpaid.”  

Professor Woodall said that the increase in university tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 has created an economic model that has become dependent on cheap labour provided by teachers on insecure and fixed-term contracts to cope with the rise in the number of students.

“In the current model, the number of PhD students needed to fill teaching roles on insecure contracts is often more than will ever get permanent academic jobs,” she added.

Professor Woodall described how many universities have become focused on investing in new buildings and facilities to attract students, rather than looking at the workload of teachers and class sizes. “If you can spend money on consultation and marketing and things like this then you can afford to employ and pay staff properly,” she said. “Without good teaching, the rest means nothing. What a university does is becoming lost, it’s becoming more transactional.”

Dr Whiteman explained that some of his undergraduate students have questioned what hope they have of finding a secure job under the current system when they graduate or go on to further academic study. The Government recently caused alarm after announcing Ofsted-style plans to rank universities by graduate earnings. Dr Whiteman warned that this would disproportionately damage the arts and humanities.

Laura Franchetti, a PhD candidate at the Courtauld, said that she only gets paid for two hours of teaching time, despite working more than 10 hours per week as a teaching assistant.

“The time and effort required to complete my work frequently goes unrecognised and unremunerated,” she said. “The physical, emotional, and mental impact of this is debilitating and overwhelming. These issues, however, are merely symptomatic of a chronic problem generated by neoliberal capitalism. The world being created by the prolific casualisation we are witnessing is one of economic uncertainty, existential insecurity, and instability.”

Leaked minutes of a secret report of Russell Group universities said that the group needed to “show leadership” to “avoid further reputational damage”. It warned that politicians and others are starting to express concerns about the casualisation of university teaching and research, as well as a lack of support for staff. The report details how the number of staff on fixed-term contracts has increased at Russell Group institutions since 2012 and that Russell Group universities employed more staff on insecure contracts than other institutions.

The UCU said that the report showed how divided universities are over the issues at the heart of strikes and has urged all university heads to speak out and get their negotiators to go back to the table and talk seriously about how to resolve the disputes.

However, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association – the body tasked with negotiating on behalf of universities – has sought to play down casualisation and says that its analysis shows a trend towards more open-ended and full-time academic employment.

The UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “This secret report shows some universities do understand the extent of casualisation in our institutions and the serious damage it does to the health of staff and education of students. Sadly, it looks like it is fear of reputational damage, rather than concern for staff or students, that has prompted universities to act on casualisation.”

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