On the 22nd February 2018, staff members at institutions across the country from Exeter University to Edinburgh took to the picket lines on what was to be the first of 14 days of industrial action. The participation in the action, called by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), was to go beyond anyone’s expectations, with unprecedented numbers of people turning out on picket lines up and down the country.
After a period of industrial action, members of the union voted to accept a deal put forward by the representative organisation for the UK's universities, the UUK, that would suspend ‘all current and future industrial action’. This in itself was met with controversy. Over three months after the first picket and seven weeks after the acceptance of the deal, the cleavages in higher education are as prevalent as ever. On discussion with academics across the profession, it is clear to see that whilst such cleavages are not new issues, the handling of the strikes and the aftermath of the action has certainly exposed them.
Academics in this country are no strangers to going above and beyond the call of duty, as it were, when it comes to their jobs. In recent years there has been an ever-increasing focus on their work outside of the classroom, be it administrative duties or pastoral care of students. Speaking to an individual who is, by contract, supposed to work 35 hours a week, it was obvious that the reality of what the university expected of them went far beyond what was possible in these 35 hours. For the many academics who have young families, the pressure to fit this extra work around raising a family often finds them working at unsociable hours, which in itself is problematic. The increasing levels of bureaucracy in higher education institutions, coupled with increasing and constantly changing administrative work set by those at the top, is often to the detriment of an academic’s research. With many universities basing much of their reputation on academic research it is troubling to see this trend. After all, research is such an intrinsic part of being an academic.
Another key problem that came to light in the wake of the industrial action is that of the casualisation of the workforce in higher education. The increasingly precarious nature of working in higher education affects many different groups of staff, such as PhD students and administrative staff. An article in The Guardian in 2016 suggested that around half of academic staff (which includes those in all jobs on a university campus) are on casual contracts. This is already a shocking figure, but on speaking to those in the profession, the figures today are widely believed to be much greater. The problem with casualisation is something that is in itself deserving of a whole article but it is no secret that an increasingly casualised workforce presents huge problems.
A phrase that has begun to circulate around higher education institutions is that of ‘financial infancy’, that is that those on casual contracts who are being constantly kept in a cycle of renting, while not earning enough to save, and essentially enjoying a quality of life that does not reflect how extremely skilled they are at their jobs. Financial pressures and job insecurity is bound to have a detrimental effect on a person’s well-being and the mental health of those in academia is reaching crisis point. It was telling of the importance of the strike action that so many academics on the picket lines were at the beginning of their careers.
When speaking to those working at a university, something that often came up was the increasing atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion in the workplace. There is at best poor communication between academics and university management and at worst a degree of hostility from the top down. Recent events at Royal Holloway, University of London have shown this hostility and a lack of communication in a most obvious way. It was no secret that Royal Holloway was often criticised during the industrial action for its hard-line approach towards staff taking part in the action, but it is the recent suspension of the Jeff Frank, the Equalities Officer for the university’s branch of the UCU, that has really angered staff. The reason for the suspension remains blocked from public knowledge, however the union ‘believes that the case against Jeff has no substance’ and the handling of the situation by those at the top has laid bare the anti-union trend by many in power in higher education institutions. The fact that no academic was willing to put their name to any research for this article or about this case is an indicator of the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that has no place in an institution in 2018. To effectively suspend a union officer simply for doing their job has set a worrying precedent for the future of higher education throughout the country.
One silver lining to the situation is that through the industrial action and the months after, there has been an increased level of friendship and solidarity between colleagues in individual institutions and indeed between institutions. One academic described it as almost a ‘national body of academics’ and there is a hope that these relationships forged during the strikes will give those in academia the confidence to push for change and a resolving of the issues facing the profession.
To conclude, it is clear that there are never-ending issues that have been brought to light over the past academic year, none of which are going to go away any time soon. Real action and solid commitments are needed both by those in managerial positions in higher education and those in government. There is a real need for policy makers in the country to look into the abuses of workers’ rights at play here and simple policy changes to overhaul zero hour contracts would do a lot of good. For the individual institutions, there is a great task ahead in repairing relations in their communities; at the very least, a simple apology and admission of past mistakes would go a long way in achieving this.