Sun 7 Nov 2021 18.25 GMT
In February last year, the largest-ever wave of strikes by university staff exposed the level of discontent in a sector where pay and conditions have eroded steadily in recent years. When coronavirus subsequently shut down Britain’s campuses altogether, the focus of lecturers and students shifted to making online learning work and getting through a unique crisis. This winter, however, hostilities are about to be resumed.
Staff at 58 universities have voted in favour of strike action over pensions cuts, pay and conditions. This week, the form and timing of the coming disruption will be discussed and decided upon by the University and College Union (UCU), which organised the strike ballots. It seems likely that action will begin before Christmas and stretch into the new year.
For students whose university years have already been disrupted by industrial action and blighted by Covid – and who have just returned to campuses – this is another blow. The National Union of Students has backed the strikes, but many undergraduates will feel understandably exasperated at the prospect of more time being lost. University employers have emphasised the damaging impact on students, who have only just become reacquainted with the “buzz” of campus life.
That is unarguable. But vice-chancellors and managers should reflect on why levels of staff morale in higher education have plummeted to the extent that industrial action is becoming an annual affair. As the sector has been expanded and transformed through marketisation, the working conditions of those employed within it have markedly deteriorated. Insecure, poorly paid short-term contracts are the norm for younger academics, who are unable to plan their lives with any confidence in what the future may bring. According to UCU figures from 2019, overall pay had fallen in real terms by 17% in the space of a decade. A survey published last month revealed disturbingly high levels of stress and poor psychological health, due to increasing workload and multiplying demands on time.
The cumulative effect over years, for many academics, has been one of demoralisation while attention has been focused elsewhere. The era of funding though tuition fees has led to a welcome focus on student wellbeing and satisfaction. Huge sums have been invested in upgrading facilities, as well as on marketing and vice-chancellors’ salaries. But the interests and concerns of those who give the lectures and do the research have been neglected.
As well as an end to pension cuts, the UCU is calling for the elimination of casual contracts, a £2,500 pay increase for all staff, and a new focus on making workloads more manageable.
While many universities grapple with a post-pandemic drop in income from international students, and worry about the effect of rising inflation on their finances, it seems unlikely that these demands will be met. The Treasury’s reported desire to cut tuition fees to save money on the student loan bill will also be on the minds of managers and accountants. But as the higher education sector braces for another bout of industrial unrest, it seems clear that morale on UK campuses has fallen dangerously low. That’s bad news for students as well as staff.