UCU Strikes, Again

It’s official: our lecturers are downing tools again.

In a 16 November press release, the University and College Union (UCU) announced that strike action will take place at the University of Edinburgh and 57 other universities between Wednesday 1 December and Friday 3 December over a pensions dispute and a pay and working conditions dispute.

The press release further states that:

“…the three day strike will just be the start of sustained disruption for the sector if employers fail to negotiate.

“The union intends to escalate its disputes next term. If employers do not make improved offers, further industrial action is likely to continue into the spring.”

The strike dates come after Edinburgh lecturers and academic support staff voted for strike action on a pension ballot and a pay and working conditions ballot.

The pension dispute is rooted in a series of planned restructurings and cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension fund which represents most academics at the University of Edinburgh.

The cuts will result in academics with USS pensions seeing far less in post-retirement yearly pension payouts, with an average middle-of-career lecturer set to lose about 1/3rd of their yearly payout – a loss of around £6000 per year.

USS – and various universities contributing to the fund, including the University of Edinburgh – claim that the cuts are necessary to maintain the stability of the pension fund after Covid.

However, UCU has questioned this, pointing out that the planned slate of cuts was created during the start of Covid, when markets were crashing and university finances for the 2020/2021 year were expected to be low.

The University of Edinburgh itself has largely recovered financially, with University Vice Principal Gavin McLachlan saying that the proposed pension cuts would leave the university with a “larger than expected surplus”.

The pay and working conditions dispute is more straightforward, involving action on what UCU dubs the “Four Fights” – long standing campaigns in the academic sector to increase pay, reduce workload, increase equality, and fight against casualisation.

Staff workload is an important factor for many Edinburgh lecturers, with many feeling that a workplace culture exists at the university which effectively requires academics to take on more hours than their employment contracts stipulate. Professor Diana Paton explains this situation in her own words, saying:

“Everyone is working many more hours than we are contracted to do. It’s become completely normalised. It means that there’s a lot of stress and lots of people are close to burning out all the time.”

Dr Paton further elaborated her broader support for the strike, saying:

“I am angry that university staff have been pushed again into a situation where our choice is either to strike or to have very damaging changes forced on us. If we don’t fight those changes now, we will have lost our pensions forever.

“I hate the fact that students are in the middle of this again, but I’m heartened to hear from many of them that they do understand why we are taking this action.”

Casualisation was also an important factor for some UCU Edinburgh members voting for strike action, as the University of Edinburgh has recently begun attempting to employ lecturers on eight month “teaching fellowships”, allegedly in violation of an anti-casualisation agreement between UCU and the university.

Many students find themselves supporting the strike action. Brigid McMorrow, a 4th year English Literature student, supports the strikes, saying:

“I am completely in favour of our lecturers and support staff going on strike before the end of the calendar year. I feel that it is an unfortunate, though necessary, consequence of the treatment they have received from the university. 

“I hope that this action will draw attention to the difficulties that lecturers and their support staff experience and will encourage the university to consider the implications of their decision.”

Some students have more hesitation about the upcoming strike action, however. One third year Sociology undergraduate shared their opinion of the strike action, saying:

“I support the cause and understand the reasons they might be striking, but after doing most of my degree online I would be very sad and frustrated if I lost even more in-person teaching to potential strikes”.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Joe Sullivan

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