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5th March 2022

Staff strikes are frustrating, but don’t forget who the enemy is

As the UCU strikes disrupt classes, it’s worth remembering where the real issue lies (hint: it’s not the lecturers)

A feeling of deja vu has come over campus. Lecturers once again prepare to go on strike to demand better conditions for themselves and future educators. Their aims come down to four key areas: pay, workload, diversity, equality, and casualisation. To anyone not in management, these seem universally basic and important demands. The strike rests on the principle of the dignity of the human person, which management is ignoring in favour of profit. As students, we can be frustrated, but lecturers can hardly be blamed.

Dr Paul Simpson, who graciously spoke with us about the strike, explained that there are 6,500 university lecturers across the UK on zero-hour contracts and 70,000 on fixed-term, temporary contracts. What’s more, women and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in these figures. Dr Molly Geidel, lecturer in American Cultural History, pointed out to us that staff “want to be able to devote [their] time and attention to teaching and advising” which they can’t do “when the student-staff ratio keeps rising and we’re given less and less administrative support”.

Furthermore, the workload for university staff has been increasing intensely alongside falling pay rates. The university has failed to bring in more staff to accommodate growing numbers of students. As a result, lecturers are vastly overworked with no compensation. In these conditions, it should not come as a surprise that university staff face higher rates of mental health struggles. Almost a third of lecturers surveyed by UCU reported feeling emotionally drained after a day’s work, and 53% showed probable signs of depression. As Dr Simpson said in our chat, this reflects the little value held for those educating young people. 

It is also essential to recognise that lecturers don’t want to strike. It is not only for the financial repercussions of losing a day’s pay, which puts some off of striking altogether. But missing out on engaging in discussions and work that they value. Dr Simpson explained that lecturers genuinely enjoy “seeing students develop a more critical understanding of the world and we learn from them what works in our teaching and how we present our research”. The staff’s disappointment mirrors that of the students.

He also spoke of how impressed he is with his colleagues’ dedication to supporting students. We agree wholeheartedly. Using office hours and email consultations, posting materials on Blackboard and scheduling feedback sessions shows the admirable commitment of lecturers to the students. 

Despite this, the right-wing media have unsurprisingly decided to hound the union for their decision, framing the strikes as the acts of selfish academics. Outlets place the strikes in the context of students missing their contact hours, ignoring the powerful causes of the four fights. The Telegraph, not particularly famed for supporting employees over employers, reinforced the news of the strike with news that “the majority of students are already behind on their studies”. The paper gave most of the space in the article to the spokesman for the USS, who condemned the union as “disappointing” and “detrimental”.

Even The Guardian, a (theoretically) left-wing outlet, dedicates almost no time to the concerns of the union. Instead, they dedicate most of their article to the UCEA statement defending the “moral position of employers” in withholding pay. 

 When articles do give space to talk about issues, they ignore the emotive and powerful issue of equality for minorities. Instead, they focus on pension strikes, and pay rises, which are easier to frame as selfish lecturers out for themselves. The view of establishment-upholding outlets such as The Telegraph, has begun to influence the student outlook on the strikes. Before the strikes in December, student journalist Louisa Riley, writing an opinion piece for The Tab, described the strikes as a “selfish and unfair move from those voting in the strikes [sic] favour”, vehemently asking “How dare lecturers go on strike again?” 

This dismissal of unions is part of a much deeper, systemic problem in the media. Politicians and right-wing media have for decades taken any opportunities to bash trade unions. After all, most of the cabinet idolise Margaret Thatcher, who took great pride in breaking trade unions. Therefore it may come as no surprise that higher education minister Michelle Donelan described the actions of unions as “deeply irresponsible”. Again she blames those striking, not those causing the strike.

Donelan follows in the footsteps of many in her party. While he was London mayor, Boris Johnson called for ‘Thatcherite zeal’ in attacking union action. Unsurprisingly, the party of the powerful will always be on the side of the employers.

 Even Labour, the supposed party of workers (hence the name), has for years taken any opportunity to criticise unions. Tony Blair, in his electoral campaign, advertised that he “would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”. Keir Starmer has been accused of treating unions like “the drunken uncle at the party”. Just last week, he clashed with Unite, who threatened to cut funding because they did not feel represented by Labour. 

This situation is undoubtedly incredibly frustrating for students. As the UK has jumped in and out of lockdowns, so too have classes moved from online learning to in-person and back again with little predictability. Students adapted to change after change, missed out on graduation celebrations and faced futures shrouded in certainty. This hits particularly hard for older students for whom this instability has characterised more or less their entire university career. As many of us were hoping for a return to normalcy, the news of further disruption was a devastating blow. Missing out on exciting course material and trying to teach ourselves is hardly what we envisioned for this year.

Despite this annoyance, however, many students show solidarity with university staff and understand the real issue. Similarly to November and December of last year, when students came out to support the strikes, the energy on campus is one of eager readiness to show support. Students understand that prolonged unfair treatment and worsening work conditions are what motivate strikers. It is an immensely encouraging sight to see.

Any annoyance at lecturers is misplaced. We should feel angry at management, at President Nancy Rothwell on a salary of £260399 in 2020, who appears opposed to the requests of the union. Her salary is ‘15 times greater than the lowest point on the University’s pay spine’, (under £17500 a year). And, according to the UCU website, the value of pay in higher education fell by 17.6% relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019. Remember that management wants you to be angry at lecturers. It deflects pressure off them, and puts it on the lecturers; it lets them keep hold of their money and their power. 

Just read this, from an email before last semester’s strikes: “We recognise the right of colleagues to take this action, but are extremely concerned about the impact on our whole community, particularly on our students who have suffered so much over the past 20 months.” They want you to think that they are on your side. Management seeks to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Instead, they offer vague platitudes about taking “their views and concerns very seriously”. They offer themselves up as on the side of students, proclaiming that they will “do everything we can to minimise any impact of the strike action on students.”

That last statement simply is not true. If management wanted to help, then they could. Instead, management offered staff a mocking 1.5% pay increase. But with inflation expected to rise to over 7% this spring, the wages of our lecturers have essentially been slashed.

When I asked Dr Simpson what he wants students to remember most, he said “the power of collective importance”. He frames the struggle as one for a society that promotes collaboration and deeper understanding. Where education’s value extends beyond the means to an ideal job. It’s an appropriately sociological response and a profoundly moving one. For a university that is ‘world number 1 for social impact’, the gap between what students are taught and the actions of university management is immense. Yet, when asked, 47% of people in the student age group said that they ‘didn’t know’ whether trade unions were beneficial to the UK. It is these people that the establishment want to co-opt, but do not let them.

Students have the power to see the larger picture despite their grievances, direct their anger towards management, and call out their lack of concern for staff and students. Students have a rich history of making change. So do not begrudge your lecturers for asking for better conditions, but support them. 


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