By Heather McKnight.
Sussex University and College Union (UCU) members are among those at sixty UK universities to vote for another wave of industrial action. Unless there is a swift response from Universities UK and the University and Colleges Employers Association, there will be an eight-day strike by staff from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December. If this goes ahead, it will disrupt classes and services in the run-up to the winter break.
UCU voted for this strike action on two separate disputes, one on pensions and one on pay and working conditions. Staff represented by UCU include lecturers, PhD students, early career researchers and many staff on precarious contracts, academic-related staff, professional services staff, and staff at the Student Life Centre.
Nationally 79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action over changes to pensions; and 74% on the ballot on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. The turnout at Sussex was the highest in England for both ballots. When asked the university did not provide any comment on the high level of staff turnout on both disputes.
As well as eight strike days, union members will also begin taking ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) from 4th December. ASOS could involve working strictly to contract (only doing what you are paid to do and nothing more) – for example not covering for absent colleagues, or refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.
UCU have stated that universities have to respond positively and quickly to avoid disruption. UCU highlighted their frustration that it has come to a vote for further action, but that refusal to deal with their concerns on working conditions, pay and pensions had left them with no choice. Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, stated: “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.”
UCU Sussex sees this as a last resort and has said they do not take strike action lightly. Chris Chatwin, President of Sussex branch, stated: “We are very reluctant to damage our student’s education but in the long term we believe that our actions to defend the working conditions of University staff and academics will protect the quality of student education and the University will continue to attract world leading academics.”
Communications prepared by UCU members for Sussex students further explain UCU’s view on the place of students in the strike action stating: “this strike is part of a larger fight against privatisation and marketisation that renders workers precarious, places students in debt, erodes working and studying conditions, and so reduces our ability to focus on what we are all here for: education.”
At the SU council meeting on Thursday 14 November, the Students’ Union voted in favour of supporting the strike action. The SU President stated:
“As a co-defender of education and in order to protect the interests of our membership, Sussex Students’ Union stands in solidarity with UCU and staff striking for a just and fair education system. The Students’ Union recognises the seriousness of the situation and is committed to supporting the aims of the strike in protecting staff pensions and tackling disability, race and gender pay gaps. While recognising the seriousness of the situation the Students’ Union also recognises the cause of it. The increased profiteering of our education. We are students, not customers.”
The Students’ Union also committed to working towards mitigating the implications and effects on students’ education, access and welfare, which will include lobbying for the students’ fair reimbursement.
Why are staff striking?
The fourteen-day strike last year focused on the planned changes to staff pension schemes, an issue which is still unresolved. However, this second wave of action is also because UCU says the sector has failed to commit to fair rates of pay, to tackle the gender and race pay gaps, or to deal with rising workloads and casualisation all of which has led to an increasingly stressful working environment for staff.
An estimated half of all academics are on temporary contracts, and since 2009 pay has fallen by 17% in real terms. A joint statement from UCU and NUS has noted concern for students who are also working in the sector, such as PhD teaching staff, and overall the demotivating impact of increased casualisation and overwork. They said: “We believe that the failure to address ever higher salaries for vice-chancellors and principals, while attacking pensions, sends a hugely damaging message to both students and staff.”
A UCU survey found that 90% of BAME staff members report having faced barriers to promotion in colleges and universities, and over two-thirds (71%) said they had ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ been subject to bullying and harassment from managers.
Analysis by Times Higher Education in early 2019 shows that, nationally, the gender pay gap means women are on average paid 15.1% less than men. At the University of Sussex, the mean gender pay gap sits at 22.5%. In the sector BME face a 9% pay gap, and Black staff a 14% pay gap.
The last staff survey at Sussex saw scores fall in terms of staff experience, with overall scores falling 12% below the national benchmark set by UUK, and dropping by 9% from previous years. The survey includes a satisfaction score of only 36% on the working environment, with only 31% of staff feeling safe to speak up and challenge the way things are doing in the university, a 6% drop on previous years and a 12% lower than the national benchmark.
One of the few questions to hold a more favourable score from the previous year was on senior management, which only showed that 34% of staff felt they provided effective leadership, still 10% lower than the national benchmark.
At the UCU general meeting on Thursday, it was confirmed that Jo Grady would be coming to visit Sussex campus on the Thursday of the strike action, and Caroline Lucas will also be visiting the picket lines. It was also confirmed that there will be a series of teach-outs (seminars, workshops and lectures by striking staff on strike-related and political matters) happening throughout the strike, both on the picket line and in Falmer House, it was noted that these are intended to be positive spaces for political education where staff and students can come together.
At the meeting, Andrew Chitty stated on behalf of UCU:
“In the end, the responsibility for this must lie with the employers”, and highlighted that the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex, Adam Tickell is the chair of the Employer’s Pensions Forum for Higher Education. The Employers Pension Forum states on its website it is responsible for developing a strategy “that will enable the HE sector to continue to offer staff access to high-quality pensions schemes as an important part of the total remuneration package.”
The UCU meeting also mentioned the student staff solidarity group that has been formed to support the strike action and there stated they were “keen to get as big a demo as possible on the first day of the strike”. The student staff solidarity group will be meeting on Tuesday at 6pm in the Meeting House on campus to discuss further actions.
What should students expect from university management?
As staff have a legal right to strike action to contest issues about their working terms and conditions, the university is not able to reschedule classes or bring in staff to cover services that are not happening during the strike. However, university management does have a responsibility to students in these circumstances. The Office for Students notes that they would expect to see that university management has taken reasonable steps to reduce the impact of the strike action on students education. This information should be communicated clearly to students, particularly concerning exams and assessments.
They have also stated that universities and colleges should also make clear how certain groups of students, such as international students, will be affected. On the run-up to the strike, there should be clear information sent to students whom to contact if they wish to discuss the impact of the action and get advice. Sussex has confirmed that for international students on Tier 4 visas, classes cancelled due to industrial action will not count as unauthorised absences.
When asked what assurances management could provide students about their qualifications, particularly about exams and assessments, Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor, said:
“As any resolution to the disputes will need to be national, our focus at Sussex will be on minimising the impact on our students.
We will be doing everything within our means to minimise the impact on students’ studies and the running of University services over any period of industrial action. I care passionately about students’ education and we have very robust plans in place to keep as much of the University running as we possibly can.
Assessments and examinations will be amended to ensure that students are not assessed on any content that may not be delivered because of the industrial action We will be sharing detailed information with students over the coming days to help them plan for their studies and there will be many routes to ask questions, and get advice and support.”
There will be more information published on The Student Hub as it becomes available.
The university did not comment on whether they would be applying pressure on UUK and University and Colleges Employers Association to negotiate with UCU to avoid strike action. However, UCU are urging students to approach university management to put encourage the employers’ organisations (UUK and the University and Colleges Employers Association) to work with UCU in negotiations to avoid the upcoming strike action by emailing the Vice-Chancellor with their concerns.