By Naomi Clarke
Industrial strike action began at Durham University, alongside 60 other UK universities, on Monday 25th November and they are due to go until the 4th December.
The strikes are led by the University and College Union (UCU) who represent many Durham lecturers and academics. The dispute is centring around two national legal issues, one over pensions and the other over pay and working conditions.
Departments have been holding ‘teach-outs’ at Redhills Durham Miners Hall to broaden education outside the classroom. The Department of English Studies held lectures on the margins of English, poetry and prose creative writing workshops, and film screenings on strikes.
The Departments of Anthropology, Education (in collaboration with the DSU), and Archaeology are equally holding teach-outs. There will also be discussions on ‘Labour and Resistance’ and ‘Climate Action’ throughout the week.
Next week they plan to hold a Mini Film festival co-hosted by Durham Working Class Students Association and a ‘Powerful Images’ exhibition.
Palatinate spoke to UCU members who are striking on the picket line. A major issue raised was that of pensions due to changes in the ‘Universities Superannuation Scheme’ (USS). UCU published analysis modelled of the financial consultants First Actuarial findings that showed a typical union member will pay around £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement.
UUK has responded to UCU’s statement on pensions that they view “the cost of providing defined benefit pensions has risen because people are living longer” and that “compared with 2011, employers are now paying more than £400 million extra per annum into USS – having increased their contributions from 16% to 21.1% of salary from October 2019.”
UCU have stated that hourly paid academics haven’t had a pay rise since 2008
The dispute over pensions also caused strike action in 2018, which was resolved through an agreement to have an expert panel analyse the pension dispute.
Ben Alderson-Day, Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Psychology at Durham told Palatinate: “It was quite clear from the last strike that we won that dispute, it was one of the most successful disputes in recent years in the UK. The clear line that came out of that was that USS had got their sums wrong, everybody recognized that, that was the point of the joint expert panel being formed. It was the point of coming together to find a new consensus. Instead, we’re right back here again because the recommendations of that panel haven’t been properly followed up. Everybody can see that.”
The Regional Support Official for UCU in the North, Joyce McAndrew, affirmed that “we had a dispute last year and we thought that was resolved with the expert panel, but the employers’ side has decided to go against their findings. Obviously members are angry, they feel the injustice not only on pay and pensions, but also the casualised workforce and the precarious work some of our members are in.”
In an interview with Palatinate, Joanne Race, Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development, in response to the issue of academic pensions stated: “It’s a national pension scheme and it is subject to national negotiations and it is UUK who represent the employers and we are one of the many members who are a part of those national negotiations.”
Members are angry, they feel injusticeJoyce McAndrew, UCU Regional Support Official
They affirmed that “it’s not within the remit of one institution to resolve the USS dispute or to influence as a single employer.”
Ilan Baron, Professor in the School of Government & International Affairs, argued that he did not agree with Durham University’s inability to take any action. He told Palatinate: “the way these things work is that if the various employers speak up, and actually start to support the claims that UCU is making, and even others who are challenging USS outside the UCU, then you can make some movement, you can have an effect. You have to say something, if you don’t say something you are effectively enabling that which probably shouldn’t be happening in the first place.”
Professor Sarah Banks, who has been in education for 25 years and a member of the Department of Sociology, remarked that: “It’s up to them [Durham University] to speak out”. Professor Banks raised a comparison that the Vice-Chancellor at Essex, Anthony Forster, and the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Durham, had provided his support to UCU members. According to the Telegraph, Professor Forster stated that trustees of the pension scheme were “being overly prudent in their assumptions, which undervalued assets and overestimate liabilities.”
Professor Banks stated: “Vice-Chancellors are all part of these groups, they have to push these groups to do more, and we know they have not been pushing as hard as they should.”
They are terrified of the riches of the past few years will leave – that’s why they’re claiming povertySenior Academic at Durham University
The UCU strike expands on a wider issue within higher education and it’s marketisation.
Professor Ilan Baron told Palatinate: “A lot of what’s underlying these challenges that universities are facing at the moment are strategic decisions that were made around 10-20 years ago in the sector. Where you just start to cut the money that was going towards pensions or towards universities and then you try to offload that on to students, so the massive hike in tuition fees, and then universities are stuck in having to provide more teaching, to more students, with less money.”
Professor Baron continued: “Universities provide a very important service to society, we don’t produce consumers, we help to develop engaged citizens […] – and that’s effectively kind of an essential service. That understanding of what universities are has been eroded for years and now what we’re seeing is increasing consequences of that, casualisation is part of it, cutting pensions is clearly part of that. And it’s students who are really going to suffer in the long run from that process.”
A senior Durham academic spoke to Palatinate about the instability of tuition fees in the current political climate, they believed this was one potential reason why Universities are being so cautious over meeting these UCU demands. “They are terrified of the riches of the past few years will leave – that’s why they’re claiming poverty” the Senior Academic stated.
The industrial action also centres around pay and conditions of academic staff. A central point of the strike action is surrounding the ‘casualisation of staff’ which leaves academic staff on fixed short-term contracts and often on an hourly wage.
In an interview with Palatinate, Joanne Race insisted that Durham University took casualisation “very seriously”. Mrs Race stated it was the “reality of funding in higher education that research staff are often funded by external research projects, which tends to be time-limited funding.”
Mrs Race explained the process in Durham University, where contracts are reviewed annually to “make sure those fixed-term contracts are appropriate and the most appropriate way of employing people.”
The University formed a ‘working group on casualisation’ in response to this issue, which is “looking at the way that we are engaging our casual staff and short term contracts.” Mrs Race stated that this working group was due to provide an initial report to the executive before Christmas and they hoped to make more formal proposals for change by early next year.
David Evans, the Postgraduate Academic Officer for the Students’ Union and part-time tutor in the Maths department, sits on this working group and told Palatinate: “I have some faith in it, it is making progress. It has come to some good conclusions, it’s just the pace of it is my main concern.”
Evans continued: “I was expecting some of the recommendations to have been implemented for this year. Considering we’ve now basically agreed on a way of tying the casual rate to a grade point.”
If you don’t say something you are effectively enabling that which probably shouldn’t be happening in the first place.Ilan Baron, Professor in the School of Government & International Affairs
UCU has stated ‘68% of research staff in higher education are on fixed-term contracts, with many more dependent on short-term funding for continued employment’.
Laura Chuhan Campbell, an Assistant Professor in the French department and a committee member & casualisation officer for Durham UCU, stated that Durham UCU were offered to sit on this working group panel but they declined the seat.
Dr Campbell told Palatinate: “The University was lumping all forms of casualised labour together. Of course, we absolutely need solidarity between all precarious workers at the University, but the specific issues that we wanted to negotiate to do with rolling fixed-term contracts and pay and conditions for hourly-paid lecturers, were for very specific teaching staff. So we thought that having only one UCU representative on that working party wouldn’t give us enough of a voice to really make any difference to the condition of precarious lecturers; plus it would mean that they could have claimed that any decisions they came to were agreed upon in consultation with UCU, even though they would not have been considered by the membership at large.”
Dr Campbell illustrated on the type of agreement they would like for casual staff, “to see standardisation of pay across all departments, the pay for hourly-paid staff clearly taking into account the time spent marking, answering emails, going to meetings, and office hours; we would only really like to see those hourly-paid contracts for Postgraduate students who do it as a means to supplement their funding […] We think Durham could benefit a lot from this because people would want to come and work in Durham if they see that they offer good working conditions.”
Professor Polly Low of the Classics Department raised the issue of the instability for staff on casual contracts as academics move to Durham for a short-term contract and “then they don’t know if they’ll have another job for next year and then they end up having to move across the country again, they have to move families.”
The issues of casualised staff are a national one across Universities. Professor Alan Houston, Vice-Provost (Education), told Palatinate that Professor Stuart Corbridge, Durham’s Vice-Chancellor and Warden, and himself believed “teaching staffs’ stability and career opportunity was really key to development” and that this has led to “the adoption of a new teaching track and the conversion of 120 odd people from fixed-term teaching fellow contracts to a career path on the teaching track where there is progression and opportunity to move up from assistant to associate to full.”
A PhD student at the picket spoke of his experience of casualisation during their first year of teaching alongside their research and how “at the start of our academic career, we see junior academics around us all the time and they’re on 6 month contracts, they’re expected to move city to start at a new university, or even move country, for the promise of a 6 month contract and then at the end of that 6 month contract, they don’t know if they’ll get another 6 month contract or they’re not going to another contract at all. And it’s incredibly stressful and it puts a lot of strain on these people.”
They said this pressure has made them consider their future in academia as a result as “there doesn’t seem to be much of a future.” They said there are 6-month teaching opportunities “but that means you can’t do your own research or your own work, so then you can’t get any more senior positions either.”
Equality and pay are the other major points of the UCU dispute. UCU has stated that hourly paid academics haven’t had a pay rise since 2008. In real terms, their pay has seen a depletion in value since 2010 due to inflation.
An Assistant Professor in Chemistry stated: “I was a postgraduate twenty-five years ago and the rates that postgraduates are not being paid are very similar to what they are then – that’s quite astonishing really.”
On the matter of pay, Durham University stated that it too was a national issue and that they have to “abide by the outcome of the national process, any university that is part of the national pay negotiations cannot [resolve the USS dispute], we would have to come out of that process and set out own pay local. We would have to actually totally come out of the national pay negotiations, which we would need approval from the council for, it’s a very small number of universities that have done that. The vast majority are still part of the national pay negotiations.”
Recently, light has been shown on the inequality with regards to gender and BAME staff at Durham University. Palatinate discovered that Durham is below the Russell Group average for employing BAME staff at 14% of all academics, whilst women make up 36.6% of academics at Durham.
What we would like to aim for is 50/50 in terms of men and women in all gradesJoanne Race, Director of Human Resource at Durham University
Alan Houston, Vice-Provost (Education) stated: “Diversity, equality and inclusion are the preconditions of success. We can’t thrive as a university, we can’t be a good employer, and we can’t be a good educator unless we have a diverse and richly talented study body and professional body.”
The gender pay gap has also been a matter of great contention at Durham University as a 2018 report showed that the gap was 25.35%, higher than other Russell Group universities. Joanne Race remarked that they have action plans for BAME staff and to address the gender gap, which has reportedly decreased by 1.58% to 23.77% in the last year.
The University stated Durham operates differently to its peer Universities due to its employment of “manual domestic and axillary staff for catering, cleaning staff etc, whereas some institutions contract those out.”
Joanne Race stated: “Nonetheless its a figure that’s too high. We take it very seriously. We are working very hard to improve the gender pay gap. What we would like to aim for is 50/50 in terms of men and women in all grades. We’ve got more women at the bottom end, and more men at the top. It’s not something that is unique to Durham but nonetheless we are not complacent about that at all.”
As a tactic to elevate the disparity, Durham University has stated they have changed the way it reviews academics for promotion and progression. “Instead of asking people to volunteer whether they want to be evaluated, we simply evaluate everyone. Because sometimes, if you leave it up to individuals, you get disparities, some people push themselves, other people don’t. So we’re working with the progression scheme to try and ensure that is as fair to everyone as possible,” said Alan Houston.
Dr Laura Chuhan Campbell argued this “wasn’t enough” and believed the main issue was due to the increasing workload, which “really discriminates against women and anyone with any caring responsibility”. Dr Campbell stated: “If you have a family and you’re the main carer, you can’t work that 50 hours a week that’s expected of you to actually get into those senior positions.”
Students will be the first to face the brunt of strikes due to the disruption of contact hours and many have expressed their frustrations due to the effects of strike action.
The lecturers expressed that they did not wish to strike and were deeply sympathetic to the impact the action will have upon students.
Penelope Anthias, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, insisted: “All of us are really aware of the consequences for students and it really is a last resort. We are also aware that students have been the most adversely affected by the gradual erosion of higher education. All of these issues of casualization and unfair pay in education also directly impact students education that they are receiving. So I feel it is a false dichotomy to say that the students have interests separate with lecturers here, we are really on the same side of defending education as a public good.”
Professor Alastair Renfrew, Head of the Department of English Studies, stated: “Students should never be in doubt that their interests are the same as those of the staff whoteach them.”
Professor Renfrew remarked how the University sometimes depicts students in a distanced triangular relation to the University, their lecturers and themselves, and he argued that this was not right, that students and lecturers care about the same things of quality education and a quality environment to learn in.
Think about the rich ways in which your education is achieved […] tuition fees are for participation in an educational communityAlan Houston, Vice-Provost of Education, Durham University
Other students have expressed their support to the Durham USU members, Neve Ovenden from the Durham Student Worker Solidarity group, remarked: “Staff do not want to be on strike, they want to be in the classroom teaching, they want to be in the labs researching, they want to be where the students are. That is where their passion is and that is why they’re out here on the picket line today, not only to improve the conditions of their own labour but also to preserve the quality of our higher education.”
In relation to the effects on students Alan Houston, Vice-Provost (Education) of Durham University, said: “We don’t actually know what the full impact on students will be. It will vary by departments. We’ve asked each department to keep track and to let us know after the eight days have passed who have striked and we have a complete list of every module and every class so that we will have accurate information and can go back and now that this student is affected in these ways.”
The University has sent all departments a twelve-point mitigation plan, with a focus on learning outcomes and how they will be affected.
In relation to compensation, the University stated it was “far too early to anticipate what the consequences will be, to be able to measure it out”. They encouraged students to “think about the rich ways in which their education is achieved” and that “their tuition fees are for participation in an educational community” and that “only one way is through contact hours, there are lots of other ways that those goals are delivered.”
Durham University finally remarked: “We know and are firmly committed that we will not use the funds to benefit the university and we will use those funds in ways which benefit students, precisely how, is something we haven’t had time to think through yet.”
Photography by Tim Packer