Writer Samuel Rafanell-Williams speaks to university staff involved in the ongoing Industrial Action at The University of Glasgow.
In the last few weeks, university staff represented by the Glasgow branches of UNISON and the University and College Union (UCU) have been on strike at The University of Glasgow. UNISON represents mostly professional services and operational staff (i.e. support staff and cleaners), whilst the UCU represents academic staff involved in teaching and research. There has been fairly consistent industrial action in Higher Education since the end of the pandemic, and students’ responses to the strikes continue to fluctuate. Some, feeling naturally hard done by and in want of a semester uninterrupted by striking lecturers, and some – literally and metaphorically – joining staff members on the picket lines.
The UNISON action took place from Tuesday 26 to Thursday 28 September and the UCU joined them on the picket lines on Wednesday 27. These actions were part of an ongoing national dispute between university staff and employers over long-term stagnating pay and deteriorating working conditions at UK universities.
The strikes follow the UCU’s rejection of a pay offer proposed by the University and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), which ranged from between 5% to 8% for the lowest paid university staff. 56% of participating UCU members voted to reject the offer, which amounts to a real terms pay-cut for most staff when considering recent rates of inflation. The UCU’s demands include a pay offer linked to the RPI rate of inflation plus 2%, as well as action from employers to stop widespread casualization of labour in the higher education sector.
I visited picket lines outside the University of Glasgow’s main building on Wednesday 27 September to speak to union members about the circumstances surrounding the recent wave of strikes. When asked about the issues motivating the strikes, one UNISON representative (W) said: “We’re on strike for fair pay…wages have been stagnating in higher education for about 10 years now. We are earning 25% less currently than we should be.”
On the issue of working conditions – another core motivation behind the strikes – another UNISON representative said “We are increasingly seeing staff who are really struggling with the mental burden of trying to keep up with this relentless pursuit of growth by the University. It takes a mental toll not only on them but their families.”
UNISON has a mandate for industrial action which runs for 6 months from August 2023.
I also spoke to a representative from the UCU, M, who was a member of academic staff at the University of Glasgow. When I asked about the issue of casual employment practices, M said: “It’s an absolutely massive issue across the whole of the higher education sector…loads of my colleagues are on casual contracts. It’s just very destructive on a personal level, to people’s individual mental health. The stress of living on a precarious contract is enormous.”
“It’s really detrimental for students too, because they get tutors who are often drafted in last minute, who don’t have enough prep time and have no access to training or support, who don’t understand the institution’s structure…”
When I asked students about their views of the strikes, they expressed understandable frustration at the ongoing dispute, usually citing the investment they themselves make by going into higher education. One international student I spoke to (J), who was on a postgraduate-taught sociology programme, said they were concerned about the strikes as their family “has made significant financial sacrifices to support my education in the UK, including high tuition fees and accommodation fees.” However, they nevertheless agreed that “teachers have the right to advocate for their interests,” and said they hoped
the university would take measures to compensate students for lost teaching time.
The majority of those students I speak to are sympathetic to the pressures university staff are facing. Another student on a postgraduate-taught politics programme (L), who said that every semester of their five years studying at UK universities had been affected by strike action, told me they “very quickly realized that the blame for the strikes lies with management. You just need to look at the facts; they’ve cut [staff’s] pensions, they’ve cut their salaries, their conditions are terrible and they work much more than they get paid for…at the end of the day, their working conditions are our learning conditions.” (L) also encouraged students to speak to their lecturers in order to find out more about the circumstances motivating staff to go on strike.
Many of us are increasingly conscious that the source of our frustrations – and those of university staff – is the ongoing commercialisation of higher education in the UK. The project of running universities primarily as business enterprises, as opposed to essential public institutions, has been cited as causing the oversubscription of courses with dire consequences in Glasgow’s housing market, a financial dependency on international students and dramatically increased workloads for university staff, usually with no corresponding support or compensation. When the sector is primarily oriented towards a profit motive rather than the imperative to educate, it should be no surprise that the commercialisation of universities has, on so many levels, manifestly compromised the quality of student experience these institutions offer. The staff involved in supporting and delivering for students also bear the brunt of these structural pressures. Evidently, drastic action from both legislators and power-holders within the sector is necessary to remedy the dissatisfaction pervasive amongst staff and students at UK universities.