As a PhD student, the outcome of the upcoming industrial action will not affect my pay as a tutor, my tuition fees, my quality of life as a student, or the quality of my dissertation. Yet I plan to strike, am proud to do so, and strongly believe everyone in a position to strike should do so as well.
On the face of things, the strike is over staff pensions. The nitty-gritty details of the dispute, including who is involved, what they think and why, is complicated and — quite frankly — very boring. But the details can be boiled down. When current staff accepted jobs or promotions here at St Andrews and at many other UK universities, these staff were offered a voluntary pension plan and told that the universities would guarantee significant portions of their pensions against losses. If the pension funds performed poorly, then the universities would pick up the slack. Then, when (depending on who you ask) major issues arose in the pension, the universities collectively decided that they no longer have any interest in guaranteeing staff pensions against such losses.
This version of the story is admittedly oversimplified, but the bottom line is fairly simple: staff — your teachers — stand to lose up to half of their pensions. And they stand to lose up to half of their pensions because universities are not willing to guarantee something they had previously guaranteed.
The people standing to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds of pension are the very people that drew me to St Andrews. They are the people that put in the effort and make St Andrews excel at both research and teaching. These are people who care about the future of us students and put in time to make sure we leave here with a quality education.
We owe them. The university owes them.
I would not feel so strongly about the upcoming action if I believed the university’s heart was in the right place. The issue with the pension is only one sign of misplaced priorities among many. Staff wages have fallen in value against inflation around 15% in the last 10 years despite a huge increase in tuition fees. At the same time we can all witness ways St Andrews has spent money prioritizing amenities and prestige over academics, whether the purchase of Madras College, the current work on accommodation by University Hall and Agnes Blackadder Hall, the past renovation of the Sports Centre, the work beginning at Guardbridge, the soon to begin expansion of the Museum of the University of St Andrews, and the planned redevelopment of Albany Park. While this is a trend seen recently across the UK and US, and hence not a problem local to St Andrews, these projects show where the University’s priorities lie, especially in the facing of shrinking wages and pensions.
Career teaching staff have not been the only people hurt from shifting priorities. It has hurt your PhD tutors as well. Tutor pay across the UK is awful, approaching exploitative. As PhDs, we know we have awful career prospects in front of us. This is part of the Faustian bargain of being able to work on something we find interesting and care about despite the fact maybe only 5 or 6 other people in the world also work on it. But to increase the chances that we get to continue our work after our PhD and to supplement our often non-existent bursaries, we can teach. Arguably, we have to teach if we want to have any career prospects at all.
In the humanities, tutoring is really the only option we have to teach, and tutors in the UK are paid a fraction of what comparable work is paid in the States. At St Andrews we are paid a flat weekly rate as bank workers. Each faculty sets their own minimum payment, but in the arts and divinity faculty, the minimum weekly pay is an hour preparation time and an hour for every tutorial group we teach. On top of that, the faculty sets a minimum marking rate of 4500 words (about 3 first-year essays) an hour. If we inevitably spend more than an hour between reading the assigned reading, looking through lecture slides, and thinking up lesson plans, we are paid an hour’s wage. No more. When we inevitably spend twice as long marking between reading essays, entering feedback, entering grades, double-checking marks for fairness, and responding to moderation feedback, we get paid a flat rate for 4500 words an hour. No more. Granted, this is the minimum guideline set for departments, but many departments follow these guidelines to the letter. Some departments’ tutors (including in my department, philosophy) are paid more, but only because we have previously threatened to take industrial action of our own.
That St Andrews, as well as many other UK Universities, thinks that this is a fair arrangement for the PhDs that are taking time out of their dissertation to provide skilled and effortful work; that St Andrews, as well as many other UK Universities, thinks it is okay to allow staff wages to lose value against inflation; that St Andrews, as well as many other UK Universities, thinks it is okay to respond to a fairly minor problem with the USS pension scheme by removing their stake in the scheme — effectively cutting some pensions in half — is a sign that their priorities are in the wrong place.
And that is why I am proud to strike.