Strike Action at British Universities

With a fresh round of University and College Union (UCU) strikes in 58 British universities set to begin tomorrow, December 1, 2021, I thought it would be good to review the reasons behind why the strike is happening as well as set out my own view regarding the strikes. The industrial action scheduled for the 1–3 December, 2021 is part of a long process of strikes to improve staff working conditions and pensions. I remember how academic staff went on strike during my first year of university in Edinburgh in 2017. In other words, this dispute over what education should look like and how the higher education sector should work has been raging for several years. According to the UCU, one-third of academic staff are on casualized contracts, and the field of academia continues to see a severe underrepresentation of women and people of color. University staff proclaim that “our teaching conditions are your learning conditions” meaning that staff on casualized and zero hour contracts are unable to provide the teaching and support that students deserve.

On the other hand, many students bemoan how the strikes lead to loss of teaching, and they must get their money’s worth out of university due to the extortionate fees. I would argue, however, that this framing is the direct result of the neoliberalization of the university and the conversion of the university from a place of learning to a place where students pay money for job skills. Neoliberalism is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but when I use neoliberalism here, I mean to say that the university’s main aim is not to provide education for students and serve as a place of learning; Instead, they have become sources of wealth accumulation for higher paid administrative staff. Students talk about how all that matters is the piece of paper at the end of the degree, and this is reflective of how universities are highly valued in categories such as the percentage of students that find a job after graduation.

Especially in the UK, universities are desperate to attract international students who they can charge higher fees to after the domestic student fee was capped at 9,250 pounds. No such limitations apply for international students, however. It is only too easy to give an example of the extent to which tuition fees have grown by looking at my undergraduate History and Politics (MA) degree at the University of Edinburgh. When I started undergrad in 2017, my tuition fees were 17,700 pounds (already nearly double those of English students), and this tuition fee remained constant throughout my time at Edinburgh. For students starting their degree this academic year of 2021–22, the tuition fee for History and Politics MA has increased to 22,000 pounds per year. This increase is obscene particularly when the benefits to senior administrative staff are taken into account. The vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, Peter Mathieson, is paid 340,000 pounds per year, and the university paid 26,000 pounds to transport his cat from Hong Kong (where he had previously been the principal of the University of Hong Kong). This means that the tuition fee that I paid for an entire year of university was not even sufficient to cover the cost of moving Mathieson’s cat.

These statistics begin to paint a sense of the injustice facing the higher education sector when academic staff compete desperately for casualized and low-paying contracts while universities direct their profits (made from charging extortionately high fees especially to international students) towards senior administrative staff. These kind of inequalities (and considering the gendered and racialized access to higher education jobs) make an excellent case for striking and demanding better working conditions for academic staff. It is unacceptable that higher education staff are forced to work in such conditions and with such low pay.

I understand students’ concerns about how they are not receiving a service for which they are paying a large amount of money. However, I would argue that these strikes raise serious questions as to the purpose of higher education. Should universities be about learning and teaching? Should they seek to maximize profits? Should their focus be to prepare students for the job market? Should universities be centers of critical thinking and radical thought? It is perhaps the last question that senior administrators most expressly do not want the university to be. If universities become centers of critical thought, then they might, in fact, question the neoliberalization of the university and why education is so restricted, gendered and racialized. I hope that these strikes and industrial actions will be a way of pushing an alternative vision of the university forward.

I would say already that a lot of teach-outs and strike actions planned at LSE are leaning in the direction of alternative imaginings of what the university could look like. One of the teach-outs tomorrow at LSE is called Reimagining Work: Precarity, Care and Racism in the Neoliberal University. I hope talks like this can tackle the burdens placed upon higher education staff to constantly be producing new research and new papers because this reflects well on the university and the university ranking. I admit that I am heavily influenced by university rankings even as I unconsciously (or perhaps more consciously) realize that these reflect problematic ideas around centering English-speaking universities, particularly in the US and the UK, which ignores enormous numbers of excellent academic researchers and teachers. These rankings also encourage staff to work extremely long hours at precarious jobs to produce research that will help the university’s prestige (and not so much researchers’ mental health). Precarity and racism are also other themes that are obviously very relevant to the strike actions in terms of the lack of people of color in the higher education sector as well as the casualization of higher education work. I am curious to see how the speakers talk about care in the context of the neoliberal university, but I am hopeful that these kinds of talks can help the strikers and students reconceptualize how we think of the university and the role that the university should play in society.

I admit that a lot of students are tired of strike action and unwilling to support the strikers. However, I agree with higher education staff when they say that their teaching conditions are our learning conditions. I will not be crossing the picket line during this round of strikes. There is a valid concern over the effectiveness of strike action and UCU negotiators, but the precarity faced by university staff demands that action be taken, and it is unclear what other measures can cause university administration staff to listen to UCU members’ concerns. I feel that the conditions of staff in higher education, and the problems discussed in this post warrant a stand against injustice, so I will be standing in solidarity with staff on the picket line this week. I encourage all students to express frustration not with striking staff but with university administration.

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Andrew Barnett

Andrew Barnett

MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.