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University Strikes: An Inevitable Result of the Damaging Legacy of Marketisation

Thousands of academic staff have had to accept sub-standard working conditions and casualised contracts as politicians have attempted to alter the purpose of the education system, writes Thomas Perrett

A protestor at a rally outside London’s King’s Cross Station in support of the biggest walkout organised by the University and College Union in November 2022. Photo: Sipa US/Alamy

University StrikesAn Inevitable Result of the Damaging Legacy of Marketisation

Thousands of academic staff have had to accept sub-standard working conditions and casualised contracts as politicians have attempted to alter the purpose of the education system, writes Thomas Perrett

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When University and College Union (UCU) staff staged three days of strikes in the final week of November, it illuminated a long-standing dispute around pay, pensions and the precarity of the working conditions to which academics had been subjected.

Back in October, more than 70,000 staff at 150 institutions nationwide voted in favour of strike action against cuts to their pay and conditions by a margin of 81.1%, and against cuts to pensions by a margin of 84.9%.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady argued that its members had “delivered an unprecedented mandate for strike action”. UCU staff demanded a pay rise and for action to be taken to eliminate the use of insecure contracts and dangerously high workloads.

Following a decade of below-inflation pay, university employers imposed a pay rise worth just 3% this year, even though the UCU estimated back in March that staff pay had fallen by 25.5% in real terms since 2009.

Even as the cost of living crisis escalates, with inflation at its highest level since 1981 and the energy price cap set to rise to £4279 from January, a third of academic staff now find themselves on temporary contracts, with some forced to rely on foodbanks. 

UCU Research has also shown that academic staff are doing the equivalent of two days of unpaid work every week, a figure which rises to four days for staff on the most precarious contracts.

Its report, released in June, showed that graduate teaching assistants – among the most casualised staff members in higher education – worked the equivalent of 64.4 hours per week; that more than 14,000 academic staff on term time only contracts worked the equivalent of 67 hours, and that staff on zero-hours contracts had to work 62.8 hours per week. Unsurprisingly, 87% of academic staff said their workload had increased in the past three years, with 68% saying it had increased significantly.

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Damaging Legacy of Marketisation

While the conditions faced by academic staff have become increasingly precarious in recent decades, the university sector remains a profitable industry.

Last year, it generated a record £41.1 billion as 150 vice-chancellors – who can take home around £269,000 a year – earned an estimated £45 million. Despite plans to increase capital spending by 36%, or £4.6 billion during 2022, the university sector pledged to allocate just £600 million to staff costs.

Jo Grady has said that “university vice-chancellors are deliberately choosing to make their staff poorer with vicious cuts to pensions and an insulting pay offer of just 3% whilst inflation continues to soar” and that “university finances are in rude health and there is no doubt the sector can afford to do much better”.

Long-term marketisation has compelled university staff to accept declining conditions, as their institutions become increasingly dependent on unpredictable income streams such as student fees, accommodation costs and grants. Only a fifth of universities’ incomes are now drawn directly from the state.

The process of marketisation – accelerated by the Coalition Government’s introduction of £9,000 tuition fees – has ensured that departments and disciplines not regarded as profitable are readily discarded, and that increasing numbers of university staff are subjected to casualisation.

Last year, Goldsmiths, University of London announced 46 staff redundancies, as 20 lecturers in the English, creative writing and history departments and 32 professional services staff were sacked as a precondition for receiving a loan from its banking partners. The university was subsequently pressured not to implement any further compulsory redundancies by a 30-day period of strikes and academic boycotts, which included a letter signed by more than 2,600 academics accusing the institution of showing “utter disregard for the integrity of the education they want to sell”.

Similar practices have been implemented at the University of Roehampton, where plans were announced to axe 64 staff back in May. The changes, which the university said could lead to up to 226 job losses, involved the replacement of subjects including classics, anthropology, creative writing and photography with “skills led” courses which had “greater levels of engagement with employers”. 

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The Pensions Dispute

University staff are showing lower levels of job satisfaction, with a UCU report published in March finding that 81% of staff aged between 18 and 29 were “likely or very likely to leave the sector in the next five years”. It showed that casualisation, in addition to disputes over pay and conditions, were the most important factors in demotivating young academics.

88% of respondents said they were pessimistic about the future of higher education, with 78% explicitly identifying concerns over terms and conditions of employment as key reasons for their dissatisfaction.

The survey, which found that hourly paid staff on temporary contracts were far more likely to consider leaving the profession, also found that the lack of future secure employment was an important concern voiced by academics.

71% of respondents aged over 60, and 67% of respondents aged between 18 and 29, cited cuts to pensions as a key factor in their decision not to pursue long-term academic careers. Meanwhile 68% respondents on casualised contracts cited the pensions dispute as a deciding factor, compared with 58% of permanent employees.

Pensions have emerged as a key battleground in the UCU strikes following cuts implemented by university employer body UUK in April 2020, which saw the typical staff member lose 35% from their pension. These cuts were forced through after a deficit was reported in a pension valuation scheme last updated in March 2020, during which time markets had collapsed due to the pandemic.

However, in light of subsequent data released by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the scheme has since recovered and currently holds a surplus of £1.8 billion. The data showed that restoration of the pension accrual rate (the rate at which benefits build up over time), and the protection of benefits against inflation would only cost £0.5 billion per year, leaving the scheme in surplus. 

Many UCU staff have advocated that the lost benefits be repaid to staff. Jo Grady argued that “university vice-chancellors forced through brutal cuts to members’ pensions earlier this year” and “six months later the scheme is in such excellent health that the trustee has confirmed lost benefits could be paid back and still leave an overall surplus”. She said “this is yet another vindication of our union who said the cuts did not need to happen”.

The decades-long marketisation of higher education, which has forced thousands of academic staff to accept sub-standard working conditions and casualised contracts, has attempted to alter the purpose of the education system – transforming it into a commercial enterprise rather than as a vehicle for knowledge. As a consequence, entire departments not viewed as economically viable have been axed and lecturers have faced substantial cuts to pay and pensions.

The UCU strikes have demonstrated that, as the cost of living crisis bites, attempts to undermine workers’ rights and conditions will be met with resistance.

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