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Interviews from the Picket Line

UCU members striking
Thursday 30th December 2021 02.29
Updated Sun 23rd Jan 2022 17.21

A December strike by the University and College Union (UCU) Edinburgh branch against the University of Edinburgh - the first in what may be many strikes during the 21/22 academic year - recently drew to a close.

Some UCU members on the Old College picket line and at a UCU rally on Bristo Square spoke on Wednesday - the strikes’ last day - with The Student about the strikes.

Dr Lena Wånggren, a tutor in English Literature, was on the Old College picket line.

When asked why she was striking, she replied,

“My colleagues’ working conditions, which are just getting worse by the year. 

“More than half of academic staff in the UK are on insecure contracts.

“People are working 50, 60 hours a week - it’s not sustainable, my colleagues are exhausted, they are falling ill.”

When asked what she would say to students, some of whom are frustrated by strike action which is sapping yet more of their limited engagement hours, she said,

“I am on strike for my students because they are not getting the attention that they deserve.

“I have colleagues who literally don’t sleep an entire night because they are marking, they do the marking in the nighttime, they don’t sleep, they go and deliver a lecture at 10am.”

Dr Wånggren was dismayed by the university’s recent choice to offer eight month teaching fellowships, responding to a question about it by saying,

“I’m so angry!

“We had so many amazing colleagues working so hard to get that agreement done, because Edinburgh is sadly one of the worst places in the UK for job insecurity, it has one of the highest rates.

“We worked so, so hard to get that agreement in that place, and it’s being ignored.”

She also questioned the wider university sector’s choices of what areas of various universities to fund, saying,

“Money is put into buildings sometimes, money is put into vice chancellors’ salaries, but there isn't enough money being put into staff, who are the people who keep the universities running. 

“That’s what a university is made up of, students and staff.”

Emma Donovan is a former Modern Apprentice and professional services worker currently working with a university-linked body, who was interviewed at the Bristo Square rally. 

When asked why she was striking, Emma replied,

“Pay, casualisation, workloads, and inequality, and on top of that, this year we’re striking for cuts to the USS pension scheme.

“I am out here as a professional services worker showing solidarity with all my comrades at UCU Edinburgh.

“I really hope we can make an impact.”

She further elaborated on some of the pay difficulties University workers experience, saying,

“I have heard of people who are tutors who haven’t been paid since September for some of their work, and also it’s pretty hard on people who have guaranteed hours contracts, because sometimes they get their pay, and they don’t get paid one month.”

Tutor and law researcher Laura Wise, also on the Old College picket line, explained that she was striking because of a broad range of issues in the UK university sector, saying,

“There’s just so many ways in which our sector is failing its staff and its students.

“For me, personally, I’ve been on fixed-term contracts since I started at the university, between two year contracts and one month contracts, it’s so difficult to plan your life.

“I don’t know if I’ll be employed next year - and I’m not even on the most casualised contract!”

Further, she discussed the issues surrounding casualisation and pay for some university workers,

“You know, I’ve got members who haven’t been paid since September.

“I’ve got members who are on the smallest contracts, with even less security than I have.

“We have a gender pay gap, we have a disability pay gap, we have a race pay gap, that’s before you even get to the workloads and pensions.

“There are so many ways that [the sector] could do better.”

Though strike action will not resume before the start of next term, many UCU employees are carrying out “action short of a strike”, involving working exactly to the terms of their contracts.

This means that, for example, a lecturer who might normally be expected to complete some parts of class preparation in their unpaid free time might instead choose only to complete that work on paid time.

UCU branches across the UK are expected to continue strike action into the next term, unless UCU, the organizations behind the universities’ pension fund Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), and various higher education institutions in the UK can work out agreements on pensions, pay, and working conditions.

Image courtesy of Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr