Earlier this month, the University and College Union (UCU) announced that eight consecutive days of strike action are to take place from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December, affecting 60 universities across the UK, including the University of St Andrews.
On 31 October 2019, members voted for strike action in response to two disputes, the first being proposed changes to pensions, a continuation of the industrial action which took place in St Andrews in 2018. The second issue which has resulted in strike is pay and working conditions.
In the USS ballot, 79% of UCU members voted to back strike action. On their social media, the UCU described the situation saying, “University staff being balloted for strike action are paying far more for their pension, but will lose tens of thousands of pounds in retirement because of a series of detrimental changes made to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) since 2011.”
According to First Actuarial, members will pay £40,000 more in to their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement.
Out of 554 mailed-out ballots to University of St Andrews UCU members, 83.49% (268 members) voted in support of strike action and 16.51% (53 members) voted against, with a 57.94% (321 members) turnout, surpassing the turnout threshold and validating their vote.
According to senior lecturer at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, Akira O’Connor, staff are being asked to contribute more towards their pensions “despite expert advice that this is unnecessary.”
Mr O’Connor continues, “This is on top of changes since 2011 that have already seen the typical pension scheme member lose £240,000.”
In the pay and working conditions ballot, the UCU cited findings from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) that the pay of staff had dropped by around 17% in real-terms since 2009.
Ethan Landes, postgraduate tutor in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film studies, told The Saint,“The University has known since at least 2014 that arts tutors widely report being paid for far fewer hours than they work.”
Mr Landes remarks that tutor pay across the arts was “atrocious” until last year, especially when it came to marking. He claims that a new policy was put in place to fix this, but “many schools have not fully implemented it.”
Policies regarding pay rates and arrangements for hourly paid teaching staff, including postgraduate tutors, can be found on the University website.
Concerning the dispute overpay, Mr O’Connor told The Saint, “Universities are employing more and more casualised staff on precarious contracts, and workload for everyone continues to grow.”
“The effects are broad-ranging, with the potential to cause real harm to the culture of research led teaching excellence we pride ourselves on, and the viability of work in higher education for everyone, regardless of background.”
Out of 559 mailed-in ballots from St Andrews UCU members, 87.27% (281 members) voted in support of strike action, with 12.73% (41 members) against, with a turnout of 57.60% (322 members), surpassing the turn-out threshold.
In a press release shortly after the vote, UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said, “The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions.
“Any general election candidate would be over the moon with a result along the lines of what we achieved last week. Universities can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on these issues and we will be consulting branches whose desire to strike was frustrated by anti-union laws about re-balloting.”
The UCU has asked its members in St Andrews to take action short of a strike continuously from 25 November 2019 and concluding no later than 29 April 2020. Those taking action will include some faculty such as lecturers, professors, academic and senior administrative staff.
Mr Landes told The Saint his perspective on the disputes as a post-graduate tutor, claiming that they are considered “neither ‘real’ staff nor really students, and the University exploits this.
“We are treated like staff when it serves the University’s interests, and we are treated like students when it serves the University’s interests. And usually this is to our detriment.”
The frustration and anger felt by striking faculty was made apparent by Mr Landes, remarking “Postgraduate tutors are early career researchers with considerable expertise, talent, and passion, and we deserve to be treated as such.”
During last February and March, strike action lasting 14 days affected the University of St Andrews, as well as 60 other UK universities, resulting in many students across the country demanding compensation for missed class time.
Earlier in the month, an email was sent to all students from Professor Clare Peddie, Proctor of the University which provided further background information on the nature of the disputes, including guidance for students and updates on action that the University is taking.
The University claim they will “work with the Students’ Association representatives and our School Presidents in order that they too can address or forward any concerns or questions students may have about the action.”
It can be assumed that the strike action set to take place towards the end of the academic term will anger students worried about the inevitable disruption to their studies in the same way that it did last year, especially with the action looming so close to this semester’s revision period in early December.
The information from the Proctor also reassured students that the examinations process will take account of any disruption that the strikes have caused to studies.
In response to these concerns, Mr O’Connor claimed that disruption to students was one of the biggest dilemmas for striking staff. He urged students to bear in mind that “this action isn’t targeted at [them]. There will be many striking members of staff who wouldn’t have interacted directly with students on the days of the strike, such as administrative staff, those employed on research-only contracts, those who don’t have teaching scheduled for the period of the action.
“On a personal level, it is heart-breaking to see the strike interpreted as a lack of conscientiousness or as a sign that I don’t care about my students. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Though it remains unclear the extent to which students will be affected by this year’s industrial action, an email was sent out to students and faculties by the principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, stating that the dispute is one which can only be solved on a national level, by means of national negotiation.
Echoing this sentiment in a comment issued to The Saint, a University spokesperson stated, “This is primarily a national dispute which can only be resolved at a national level.
“We urge both sides in this national dispute to resolve differences as soon as possible by meaningful negotiation to reach a settlement that is fair to staff and sustainable for their institutions.”
Mr O’Connor stressed his priority in keeping the student body updated on negotiation developments and encouraging inter-disciplinary discussion on the strike action, noting, “The details [of negotiations] and their significance can be difficult to tell sometimes, so we’ll be doing our best to understand what’s going on and share important developments.
“We have planned regular meetings with the Students’ Association representatives, and will also be really happy to answer questions on the picket lines, as will everyone who is on strike.”
Whether on the picket line or not, nobody can foresee the effects or results this year’s industrial action will bring about.
When asked if he was optimistic for the outcome of the industrial action, Mr O’Connor confirmed that he was. He suggested that once University leaders commit to dealing with the issues presented by the UCU, they will have the support of all staff. He said, “There’s a real appetite for positive change to guarantee that the UK higher education sector continues to be a sector that we can be proud to be working in.”