At the beginning of February, some of the largest strikes in recent memory took place at universities and higher education institutes across the United Kingdom. The University and College Union (UCU), the single biggest trade union of higher education workers in the UK, has called for eighteen days of strike action across 150 universities, setting the stage for 70,000 members of staff to walk off the job in the months of February and March. This collective action is the culmination of built-up frustrations with, and grassroots organizing against, decades of increasingly precarious working conditions, and is focused around two principal points of conflict.
Firstly, workers are taking industrial strike action to deal with what has become an endemic practice of precarious employment contracts: a huge proportion of staff working in higher education are no longer securely employed. According to research published by UCU in 2021, 44% of teaching-only contracts are fixed term, rather than permanent jobs; when it comes to research academics, that figure goes up to almost 70%. On top of this, 41% of academic teachers are employed on hourly paid contracts that last, at most, a year at a time, that offer little job security, and that provide wages that are only a fraction of what permanently employed academics make. (Especially for those at the beginning of their careers, job casualization and significant real-terms pay cuts have become increasingly common.)
All of this has combined with a cost-of-living crisis for working people across the UK: inflation has been running at anywhere between 8-11% for much of 2022, and while the University and College Employers Association (UCEA) secured a pay increase offer of around 4% in January of this year, UCU General Secretary Dr. Jo Grady described the offer as “not enough” when it comes to addressing the current cost-of-living crisis or the years of accrued real-terms pay cuts that academics have experienced over the last decade.
UCEA’s own research shows that, by some models, academic staff pay has dropped by almost 20% since 2009, reflecting broader employment trends in the UK. Research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) analyzed by The Guardian, for instance, shows that public sector pay has fallen by anywhere between 4-13% since the financial crisis of 2008.
The second point of conflict at the heart of the strikes concerns the seismic changes to academic pensions. Traditionally, the arrangement for those working in academia involved accepting generally lower wages over the course of a career in exchange for a secure pension at the end of your working life. However, a package of cuts made to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) back in 2021 meant that the typical member of staff has lost 35% of their guaranteed retirement income, despite the pension scheme itself claiming assets of over £88 billion.
These two major, intersecting issues have placed the entirety of the academic sector under colossal pressure. It has become incredibly difficult for workers to build careers in academic teaching or research—and for those who manage to do so, the career itself is increasingly precarious, low-paying, and exploitative.
One bleak detail that’s worth highlighting: When the union was balloting its members (ie, taking a strike vote), some of the language pertaining to the strike action included an agreement for members to take “action short of a strike” (ASOS). Under an ASOS agreement, workers essentially commit to only “work to contract”: that is, to solely performing the duties that employees are contractually obligated to perform. If simply doing your job as it’s described in the terms of your employment contract is something that a union has to ballot staff members on, then obviously that means employers have come to expect—and, in fact, depend on—a tremendous amount of unpaid labor. The very working culture of the entire sector is built around meeting that unjust expectation of work that exceeds one’s contractual duties, and it is fundamentally toxic (I am speaking from experience). It’s important, then, to analyze how things ended up here, what the current challenges facing workers are, and what current or potential strategies exist for fusing the struggles of workers in higher education with the broader, emergent, and increasingly militant trade union movement in the UK.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The history of higher education in the UK is the story of its ever-increasing marketization. While, historically, higher education had been funded through grants to students, these were replaced with mortgage-style fees in the 1980s. Tuition fees were introduced in the late 1990s when a Labour government scrapped the grant system entirely. Following this, the Higher Education Act of 2004 allowed for fees of up to £3,000 per year. In 2010, in an intensely controversial move, fees for university tuition were raised to £9,000 a year. In the aftermath of the tuition hikes, 50,000 students took to the streets in one of the largest student protests in contemporary UK history.
Coupled with the abolition of caps on student numbers, and the massive corresponding growth in the number of university enrollment places available for students, the new tuition fees brought an influx of cash into the university sector and, of course, a huge spike in student debt. Average projected debt for the cohort who started their courses in 2021-22 is over £45,000, and the national total of outstanding loans is over £180 billion. In a marketized educational system, students become both customer and product—and as working conditions for staff become ever more stretched, learning conditions for students inevitably suffer.
With no cap on student numbers and standard fees set to £9,000 per year, competition for students became even more intense. Universities poured money into marketing, recruitment, facilities, and property (if you live in the United States, this will all probably sound depressingly familiar). Huge amounts of capital investment have been financed with debt, all as spending on staff costs have been cut and more student money than ever before has been funneled into the sector. The university sector debt stood at £12 billion back in 2018, leaving universities in the paradoxical situation of having ballooning debts at the same time that more and more money poured into the sector.
Caught between these increasing financial pressures and the emergence of a new class of managerial professionals who believe the job of a university is to remain profitable enough to finance its capital expenditure projects, workers found themselves enmeshed in what Mark Fisher called “bureaucratic Stalinism”: new procedures, forms, and justifications of work all designed to enhance productivity and efficiency. What this led to was a complete collapse in trust between workers and management as academic teachers were being monitored and micro-managed more than ever before, while simultaneously being subjected to ever-increasing pressure to recruit more students above all else.
On top of this, senior managers and vice chancellors of UK universities saw their own salaries explode, with multiple university leaders taking home over £500,000 a year. The degradation of working conditions for staff, along with the increasing managerial surveillance, precarity of instructor employment, and cuts to pay are directly connected to the marketization of higher education in the UK.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of Brexit proved to be a dangerous combination for a British university sector that was already massively indebted and dependent upon a seemingly never-ending flow of students (particularly international students, who pay hugely inflated fees). These two crises burst the financial bubble that had inflated the sector and exposed the degree to which universities had over-leveraged their debts.
According to even the most conservative modeling from the London School of Economics, the collapse in post-Brexit international student enrollments, as well as students putting off university study in the wake of COVID, has left a £2.47 billion funding gap that amounts to the loss of over 30,000 jobs from universities across the country. Unsurprisingly, right-libertarian think tanks saw the possibility of university bankruptcies as a massive opportunity for predatory development, and to push their own culture-war agenda, and openly called for the government to let universities fail.
As a result, this latest round of industrial action has to be understood as a reaction to a decades-long experiment in marketization that is, by any metric, a colossal failure. The instability of a marketized system is a feature, not a bug or a sign of inefficiencies.
Between long-standing structural issues in the education sector and the need to try to save jobs in the short term, the challenges of collective organization are immense. To complicate matters, all trade union organizations are subject to the restrictions imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act—described by the Trade Union Congress as the biggest attack on workers’ rights in a generation. This legislation introduced a host of new regulations designed to make it harder to strike, mandating (among other things) a 50% turnout in any strike ballot, new restrictions on picketing, and that all strike ballots be done via the postal system. It goes without saying that if these rules were the standard by which General Elections had to be conducted, then Britain’s electoral system would barely function.
A spokesperson for the executive committee of the UCU branch at the University of Manchester—a university with 40,000 students that is part of the prestigious Russell Group of elite UK universities—emphasized that these rules do make getting the required strike vote turnout a challenge, especially when so much of union organizing is done by and through volunteers. Buddying systems and robust tools for monitoring member engagement are essential tools for making sure that each branch can get a successful ballot.
While Manchester University has not been so hard hit as other UK institutions, junior colleagues are precariously employed and vulnerable. They are often too busy just hanging onto what little work they have and are constantly battling to secure employment commitments from management. The aforementioned UCU spokesperson, who spoke to The Real News under condition of anonymity, pointed out that “few employees relish strike action, but it illustrates a fundamental breakdown in the UK when so many sectors are engaged in action.” Yet the mood from on-the-ground organizers is optimistic. “Strikes provide an opportunity for more people to hear a message of hope for positive change and in some circumstances to reflect on positive improvements that pave the way for better things to emerge,” they said.
UCU’s national strategy has noticeably improved after the election of Jo Grady as General Secretary of the union. After running an impressive online campaign for the position, Grady adopted a more aggressive social media strategy and explicitly linked the struggle for secure employment and decent pay within the university to the struggle for students to have a good educational experience, arguing that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
This strategy has been successful at the Manchester branch, and the union reports that students are supportive, “especially when they understand the circumstances of the staff who they are often in contact with,” the UCU spokesperson said. For members of the Manchester branch, it is important that they “have a good relationship with the formal and informal structures of the student body, and as such we enjoy support from students on picket lines.” The Manchester organizers also point to the ways this strike has built on years of organizing to better integrate the national and local unions. This organizing has bolstered more coordinated action and a renewed interest in platforming worker voices that offer a different vision to the status quo.
Importantly, the union frames the struggle as not just about educational experience but as building a legacy for the students academic workers teach. “Whatever employment conditions we accept will shape the employment and societal conditions our students inherit,” the UCU spokesperson told TRNN. If this framing is successful on a widespread basis—if students stop thinking of themselves as customers or consumers and start understanding themselves as comrades with their teachers—then the marketization model could well be dealt a serious blow.
Additionally, the recent wave of strikes in the UK driven by a broad coalition of workers across industries—including teachers, nurses, rail workers, doctors, and even civil servants—has demonstrated a degree of coordination and collaboration that is sorely needed to connect different unions and workforces to one shared struggle. There is real reason to be optimistic as union organizers recognize the importance of building these connections. As the spokesperson from UCU explained:
“Recent large-scale action indicates there is a real appetite for change in the UK. Many people understand what is driving people to take action—with declining living standards against a backdrop of record wealth transfer to the wealthy in the form of corporate profits. Much of the public sector has been stripped to the bone by austerity and those who are aware of this see protest as a part of what will enable the type of change that will make things in their lives better.”
If UCU maintains a more militant position on a national level, then there is a chance here to do more than simply defend the last advantages granted by a failing system. There is an opportunity to tackle the question of what the university can look like when built upon a democratic and egalitarian bedrock, where both students and staff have more ownership over, and more agency within, the university system. If, as the old slogan runs, the university is a factory, it isn’t enough to just shut it down—it has to be rebuilt from the ground up, and should be run by those who built it.