Staff strike action causes further disruption to students

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Industrial action by members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) took place on Thursday Week 2 and Tuesday Week 3, disrupting lectures, seminars and meetings. The first two of three organised strikes – the last is scheduled to take place on Monday, Week 5 – caused disruption following an ongoing pay dispute between staff and employers.

Strikes organised by the UCU have affected universities across the UK. UCU member Julie Hearn, speaking to SCAN, stated that “the employer’s organisation, UCEA (University and College Employer’s Association) refuses to engage with the genuine concern of those working in higher education, particularly those at the lowest pay levels, taking home less than £15,000 per year.”
Many staff have supported the UCU by taking part in the two hour walkouts. According to Hearn, “our snap post-strike survey showed that 80% of members were aware of cancelled classes, lectures or meetings as a result of the action.”

Hearn told SCAN that nationally the two hour walkouts had proved to be “very successful”. “Large picket lines and rallies, carnival atmosphere – despite the weather in some places – and strong support from students have featured in the many reports received from around the country” Hearn said. The UCU stated on their website that “most branches are telling us that more people supported the strikes than they expected, with many telling us there was more support than during the last one day strikes.”

The strikes follow the industrial action that took place in Michaelmas term, which was also a reaction to the disputes regarding pay for university staff. Prior to the Michaelmas term strike action LUSU VP (Education) Joe O’Neill stated on the LUSU website university staff pay had been unjust: “over the past five years, pay has decreased in real terms by 13% for UCU members (academics). It’s also not taking into account that Unite and Unison represent some of our community’s lesser-paid members of staff who keep the whole show running behind the scene, our porters, our cleaners, our admin staff.” O’Neill also raised the issue that UCU members are not just senior academics: “they’re the postgraduates who mark your papers, who answer your emails and who teach your seminars. They’re students too, just like you, and they’re being taken for a ride.”

Hearn was also firm in highlighting the fact that pay disputes were the sole cause of the disruption across UK universities. “Members of the campus unions, UCU, Unite and Unison, have been striking together to get UCEA back to the negotiating table to engage with the fact that lecturers, cleaners, technicians have faced a 13% cut in real pay since 2009. There is a cost of living crisis going on in our universities and the Vice-Chancellors have blocked their ears and have accepted way above inflation pay rises that are deeply insulting to their staff.”

According to UCU figures, collated from the latest university statements, over a quarter of university leaders enjoyed a pay rise of 10% or more. The UCU have been outraged by “hypocrisy” across UK universities, giving large pay increases to those at the top and real terms decreases to other staff.

In a statement on the UCU website, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt stated: “this analysis shows that far too many vice-chancellors are happy to line their own pockets while pleading poverty to their staff. Almost one in three accepted a pay rise greater than 10% yet continue to drive down staff pay.” She added that “guarantees made to ministers about pay restraint for university leaders have proved to be nothing but empty promises. Pay for those at the top has soared ever-upwards while pay for everyone else has plummeted. Our members, who are the backbone of universities, have seen their pay slump by 13% in real terms over the past five years.”

Both LUSU and NUS have stated their support of the UCU’s walkouts. On Wednesday, Week 2, NUS confirmed their support of the industrial action in an email sent officers of student union’s across UK universities. In said article, NUS President Toni Pearce and VP (Higher Education) Rachel Wenstone affirmed the NUS’ support for the rights of staff to challenge unfair pay and conditions: “We would remind you that NUS believes that lecturers and other staff in our universities and colleges should be properly supported and remunerated.”

Rachel Harvey, LUSU VP (Campaigns and Communications) confirmed that LUSU would continue to support the UCU’s industrial action. Union Council voted by an overwhelming majority to support strike action by the UCU, Unison and Unite unions, during the session of Thursday, Week 2, Michaelmas term. Julie Hearn commended LUSU’s support of the strikes: “Staff at Lancaster University are very grateful to LUSU for their continuing support and understanding as well as the student body as a whole. Staff and students are committed to the same goal, a high quality higher education system that is properly resourced and is accessible to all.”

Issues have been raised surrounding the disruption caused to students, who are paying nine thousand pound fees to be at university. Hearn replied to this, saying, “yesterday, as on the other two strike days we have had, lectures, seminars, supervisions, meetings were cancelled. This can all stop if the vice-chancellors listen to the very real needs of both their staff and students and reopen negotiations in good faith. Their current strategy is both disrespectful and unsustainable. Staff and students unite for fair, democratic universities!” Writing on the UCU website, Sally Hunt said: “Any kind of disruption is always a last resort but, after five years of pay suppression with members 13% worse off in real terms, we want a fair deal.”

It has been suggested by the UCU and NUS that some universities have threatened university staff with whole day’s pay being docked were they to take part in the two hour strike action. The UCU have described this behaviour as “vindictive and bullying.” It is still unknown whether Lancaster is one such university.

Pearce and Wenstone of the NUS affirmed the union’s stance on fairness regarding university pay, stating in an email, “we believe that fair pay is an issue of fairness in itself, but also note that there are very clear benefits to students that pay is at a level which attracts excellent staff, and helps to support the maintenance of a happy and motivated workforce.”

In examination of the University’s recently-released financial records for 2013, it appears that Lancaster’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Mark E. Smith, has not been given a disproportionately large pay rise, unlike many of his colleagues at other UK universities, despite claims by a UCU press release to the contrary.

UCU will oversee a further two hour strike, taking place on Monday Week 5, 9am-11am.

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