UK strikes: staff on picket lines ‘fighting for future of HE’

After last year’s walkout over pensions, this year’s action is ‘part of something bigger’, say union members

November 25, 2019
UCU strike at Goldsmiths, University of London
Source: Eleanor Bentall

Manning the picket lines for the second time in two years, UK union members spoke of a feeling of unfinished business with employers – and not just about pensions.

At Goldsmiths, University of London, University and College Union branch president Des Freedman said he was “gutted” that staff were on strike again.

“We worked very hard and made a lot of sacrifices in 2018,” said Professor Freedman, professor of media and communication studies at Goldsmiths. “We had hoped that the employers had come to their senses, but our demands haven’t been taken seriously.”

This year the pensions dispute was “part of something bigger” and the inclusion of the dispute over pay, workload and inequality in the action “speaks to a wider discontent”, said Professor Freedman, standing outside Deptford Town Hall as drivers of passing vehicles honked to show their support.

“It is asking fundamental questions about what are the priorities in higher education: is it about surpluses and balancing books or is it about ensuring a quality higher education?” he said.

Outside Goldsmiths’ main entrance, sociologist Jamie Woodcock, an associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, said that it was a “big personal sacrifice” to go on strike while employed on a casual contract.

“We have been pushed into it by the employers and because the future of our workplace is under threat,” he said.

“I feel like my terms and conditions have only gone down since I’ve worked in universities, but [the strikes] are also about higher education in general, which has been under attack for many years.”

Kiran Grewal, reader in human rights, said that “last year we put in a lot of time and effort on the picket and thought that we’d made some real gains, but we’ve been shown that this was a lot of talk”.

“The joy that we used to get out of being academics is being eroded. I was a corporate lawyer; I chose to give up that big salary to work in a university because I believed in it, yet now the bureaucracy and the pressures we’re under are the same as [those faced by] a corporate lawyer but without the benefits.”

Across London at UCL’s main entrance, Paul Gilroy, a professor of humanities, said that he was striking because “over the past 35 years of working in higher education” he had “seen a ceaseless deterioration of work, morale and the student experience”.

“I probably would not have picked the pension issue…but I do not think the reaction [by Universities UK] to the joint expert panel is a plausible reaction and it needs revisiting,” said Professor Gilroy.

Nicola White, a research associate in psychiatry, said that she had joined UCU during last year’s walkout and was striking again because “universities are not listening to the [latest] expert advice.”

“I just want universities to come back to the table with a reasonable offer,” said Dr White, who questioned the methodology used by the Universities Superannuation Scheme. “Everyone understands the pension system needs to change but it shouldn’t be based on faulty risk models.”

Not all staff and students were persuaded, however, by the strikers’ argument that there was no reason to cross a picket line.

“I’m an experimental physicist and I have a deadline to meet – [funders] don’t care about whether I’m on strike or not,” said one staff member. Meanwhile, a student told a picketer: “We have exams in December – we need to go to class and to the library. Our markers aren’t going to know if we stayed away because of the strike.”

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