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“The bottom line is we feel abused and exploited”: Interviews on the picket line

Members of the UCU Edinburgh trade union have now completed a 10 day strike action against the University of Edinburgh on issues of pay, working conditions, and pensions.

The Student asked several striking staff members online and at a staff rally about the impacts the issues concerned in the strike have had on them, their coworkers, and their departmental morale.

Vivek Santayana, Postdoctoral Fellow and UCU Edinburgh branch vice president, was asked by The Student about how the issues at hand in the current round of industrial action impacted him and his colleagues. In response, he said:

“Regarding the Four Fights dispute and the impact on my colleagues and I, the bottom line is we feel abused and exploited. We love our work: research into ideas that mean a great deal to us, having some inspiring discussions with students every week.

“That love is turned against us when the university undervalues what we do and doesn’t support us, expecting us to go above and beyond to absorb the impact of this neglect in order to deliver for our students.

“Our pay doesn’t reflect our workloads, staff from marginalised backgrounds who take up the additional labour of addressing structural injustices do not have this labour valued, and the job insecurity is so widespread that many of us don’t know where we’ll be in a few months from now.

“This makes it impossible for us to have a stable life or living, have families, or get through already existing socioeconomic problems like the cost of the living crisis we face, the housing crisis, or for immigrants to face the obscene brutality of the Home Office’s hostile environment.

“Down south, there was a tutor who was unhoused and living in a tent whilst teaching at an ‘elite university.’ Then we are told by management that despite being treated so poorly we should be grateful for the prestige of working at an elite university like Edinburgh. The consequence of this is widespread burnout, grief, anger, and exhaustion.”

When asked what he would say to students not understanding or caring about the strike action, Vivek said,

“[W]e’re on the same side. The same management that takes between £9,000 and £25,000 in tuition fees on average are the same management that are slashing our pensions or devastating our working conditions. That money is directed at obscene salaries and benefits for Vice Chancellors and big campus building projects rather than the staff who will be working in those buildings.

“Take for example the fact that tutors are paid fifteen minutes per essay for marking, but to give the kind of feedback that would really help our students grow we need to spend twice that time at least to go over the essay closely and discuss with students how to improve their work.

“What this means is there are several hours we dedicate to this task from our own time, the time we need to spend on other jobs or our PhD or research in order to make rent: we lose the time from this other work, and thus lose the ability to make ends meet.

“We are choosing between being good tutors or paying for rent and food. We deserve fair pay and decent jobs with secure employment so that we can be present at our jobs and give our students the education they deserve.

“Many of the issues staff faces, like poverty, insecure housing, exploitative rent, insecure employment, are issues also faced by students. We believe that our students deserve the best education possible, because education is a public good that benefits all society, and it should be a right for everyone.”

Stuart Moir, when asked to elaborate on how the issues behind the strike had impacted him, his coworkers, and his work environment, said,

“The impact [of the Four Fights] on us is that we are generally tired and stressed. This is complex as there are many elements to the dispute.

“But take one example which perhaps illustrates the situation we are in. Due to recalculations of the workload model, we now have less time allocated to mark an essay. To work to the time given, it’s difficult to mark and offer the appropriate feedback we would like to give.

“So, rather than risk giving less feedback to students, we continue to give the same comprehensive feedback which now takes longer than the time we are allocated.  The result is we work longer hours either in the evening or at weekends as we don’t want to disadvantage students.”

Time allocation for essay marking, among other tasks, is a sticking point for many University staff members. Many tutors on pickets and at Tuesday’s UCU and NUS joint rallies have made it a point to discuss the fact that they often have between 20 and 30 minutes to read and provide feedback on essays of between 1500 and 2000 words, something which they say is not possible.

This leaves the tutors in a complicated position, where they have to choose between giving extremely light feedback – which leads to shame and potentially reprimands from higher-ups – and taking on unpaid hours of work to ensure essays are looked at for longer.

When asked what he’d say to students not understanding or not agreeing with the strikes, Stuart said,

“No one likes to go on strike. We lose money and students miss teaching and learning. But, we feel we have no choice but to take this collective action to defend and advance our working conditions.

“[W]e have tried all other options to resolve this dispute but employers have not been prepared to make concessions or reach a satisfactory resolution. We all understand that students will be frustrated by the disruption caused, but I’m sure they also understand that having stressed and fearful lecturers do not make for a stimulating or effective learning environment.

“I would ask students to … seek out and review carefully the arguments we are making through our trade union about our case. This is ultimately an issue about fairness and justice, not just for ourselves but for our students with whom we share this scholarly community.”

Magnus Hagdorn, a striking professional services worker working in IT, shared his view on the issues, saying,

“Professional services are maybe facing slightly different issues [than lecturers]. Although we are lucky in that we are on open-ended contracts there is no career structure. As such we are particularly affected by the below inflation rate pay rises.

“In my case, because I have been employed at the top of my grade, I only had one discretionary [pay] increase since I started more than 10 years ago. In my case, my pay is about 8% lower than it would be if it had kept up with inflation.

“The other big issue is that we cannot employ new people even though we lost some to retirement. This means we have more work (due to the pandemic and increasing student numbers) that needs to be done by fewer people.

“In some ways, the dispute over pensions is more straightforward: they are trying to cut our (deferred) salary quite substantially. All these issues make working for the university less attractive.”

Image Credit: “Old College, Staff Student Picket”, by Magnus Hagdorn

By Joe Sullivan

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