After 14 days of action, the UCU strikes ended on Friday 13th March. However, there is already talk of a reballot of members and therefore the potential of future action.
In Durham, the strikes have seen teachouts, a large protest in Market square, and well-attended picket lines across the campus. However, the final day of picketing was cancelled as a precaution against the spread of Covid-19 (Coronavirus).
The strikes centred around two national disputes between UK universities and employers’ associations. The first concerned changes to pension schemes, which would see staff paying an average of £40,000 more, and getting £200,000 less in retirement.
The second dispute involved a cluster of issues concerning equality and contractual rights. These include the gender pay gap, BAME pay gap, a rising workload, pay rises that do not match inflation, and the use of casual contracts.
Figures from 2019 reveal that the gender pay gap in Durham is the worst among all Russell Group universities, with women earning only 72p for every £1 that men earn.
The use of fixed-term and insecure contracts has become increasingly prevalent in academia in recent years. A 2019 UCU survey found that around 70% of researchers are on fixed-term contracts, alongside 71,000 ‘atypical academics’ not counted on the main staff record, including PhD students doing some teaching to make ends meet.
The 3802 staff surveyed stated that, on average, they do 45% of their work without pay. Another statistic to emerge was that 61% reported holding another job during the last year, perhaps explained by the fact that over 65% take home less than £2000 per month.
For students, many have had contact hours cancelled and there have also been calls for compensation. 69.7% of 3,168 respondents to a recent Palatinate poll said that they wanted compensation from the University.
However, the Durham University website states that tuition fees contribute to the “whole university experience”-such as the use of libraries and student support services- meaning that they are “not directly linked to specific contact or teaching hours.”
The 3802 staff surveyed stated that, on average, they do 45% of their work without pay.
Unless it is deemed that “learning outcomes” have not been met, students will not be considered entitled to compensation.
A recent Palatinate Freedom of Information request revealed that the University saved £452,859.86 from 8 days of UCU strike action last year. This figure does not include the money saved from the 14 days of strike action in 2020.
Students at other universities, such as the University of Sussex, have been offered up to £100 in compensation for any “distress and inconvenience” that strikes may have caused.
Nonetheless, there has been a considerable level of student support for striking staff.
Durham Student Worker Solidarity have treated picket-line strikers to “hot curry, sausage and bacon sandwiches, pancakes and homemade cakes”, according to Neve Ovenden, a third-year student involved with the group.
“We have been disappointed with the lack of leadership that Durham University and Stuart Corbridge have shown in these disputes.
Dr Sara Uckelman
Jon Bryan, the Northern Region Support Official for the UCU, also reflected that “It’s great that we have had support from students – both from formal groups which have been set up to support the strikes and groups like Labour Students who have been with us on the picket lines and spreading the word about our dispute.”
Sentiments of understanding and sympathy were also echoed by Cameron Brown, a first-year English Literature student. Brown argued that “it is wrong to direct this turmoil towards the University staff themselves, which is a recurring pattern amongst the student body.
“The strikes are merely a desperate plea from the academics who live in the lingering shadow of a corrupt academic environment.”
“It’s great that we have had support from students”
In addition, Brown insisted that the academic staff should be appreciated for their role in building students’ futures. “They are the catalysts for the careers of the next generation. Their role is paramount; their pensions are deserved and equal treatment of academics of all gender and race is paramount.”
Despite the force and persistence of the strikes, there have been some questions about its efficacy. Dr Sara Uckelman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, told Palatinate on behalf of the Durham UCU that “We have been disappointed with the lack of leadership that Durham University and Stuart Corbridge have shown in these disputes.
“When asked whether there should be an improved offer on pay, he has not answered. When asked whether there should be an offer to lower member contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, he has not answered.”
One student agreed, telling Palatinate that “the University is driven by greed and profit more than any care for either staff or students, both of which are the victims of the University’s profit-centred structure and policies.”
Nevertheless, Uckelman did recognise that some improvements have been made. Durham has scrapped 9-month contracts in favour of 12-month contracts at a minimum, providing short-term academic staff with more financial and professional stability. Uckelman also pointed out a “recent agreement from the University to substantially change the way casual staff are treated.”
There is, however, a portion of academic staff who feel that more extreme academic action is needed to enforce more impactful change, with multiple expressing doubt over the ability of the strikes to sway conditions in workers’ favour.
“The University is driven by greed and profit more than any care for either staff or students”
One academic told Palatinate: “I cannot bring myself to support fully a strike that seems to be trying to fix everything that is wrong with higher education.
“How can the four fights (surrounding pay, workload, equality, and casualisation), which can only be solved locally, be won with a national strike? Was there anything universities could have done realistically in the 14 days that would have seen us return to work?”
“In order to bring the vice-chancellors to the table, we should be boycotting the Research Excellence Framework (REF), whose deadline is this year, and refusing to apply for, and peer review, research funding applications- that would be a more effective kind of action.”
“Was there anything universities could have done realistically in the 14 days that would have seen us return to work?”
The REF evaluates the research of British higher education institutions. University departments are graded on their quality of output, impact beyond academia and the environment that supports research.
Scores in the REF influence how much funding a university receives as well as their reputation. A boycott of the REF would constitute not submitting examples of research for its panel to assess.
With physical contact hours in the final week of Epiphany Term cancelled and concerns about the nature of Easter Term due to COVID-19, it is not clear what the future holds for the concerns of the UCU.
All Images: Tim Packer