UK: Overworked higher education staff back industrial action
University and College Union (UCU) members working in UK universities have backed strike action in a ballot over cuts to pensions. This comes in light of a recent report which revealed a mental health crisis and one in five university staff working the equivalent of two extra days per week.
Ballot results “a clear mandate for strike action over pension cuts”
Overall, 76 per cent of UCU members who voted in the ballot backed strike action. Almost nine out of 10 - 88 per cent - voted in favour of actions that fall short of a strike. The ballot on pension cuts covered 68 universities.
UCU called the result a “clear mandate” for strike action and said it reflected staff anger over cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions, which would reduce the guaranteed retirement income of a typical member by 35 per cent.
According to UCU, university employer body Universities UK continues to insist on imposing the cuts despite markets recovering and the pension scheme's assets growing to unprecedented levels. In negotiations, employers refused to agree to a slight increase in their own contributions or to underwrite UCU's alternative proposals to the same level as their own.
The union said universities now need to urgently revoke the pension cuts and return to the negotiating table to avoid strike action.
35 per cent cut to guaranteed pensions
“These results are a clear mandate for strike action over pension cuts and should be heard loud and clear by university employers,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady. “Staff in universities have given their all to support students during the pandemic, but management have responded by trying to slash their guaranteed pension by 35 per cent. In a ballot window of just three weeks, our members have made it abundantly clear that they will not accept these vindictive attacks on their retirement.
“It is now in the gift of employers to avoid strike action, which is the outcome staff want as well. All management need to do is withdraw their needless cuts and return to negotiations. If they fail to do so, any disruption will be entirely their responsibility.”
The union is also awaiting the results of its pay and conditions ballot. After the results of both ballots have been received, the union's higher education committee will meet on Friday, 12 November, to decide the next steps, after consultation with branches.
Staff pushed to breaking point, working two extra days per week
A report launched on 28 October shows a widespread workload and mental health crisis in universities. The report on Supporting Staff Wellbeing in Higher Education was published by Education Support, a UK organization dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and education staff in schools, colleges, and universities.
Based on research from 2,046 academic and academic-related staff, the report paints a picture of staff being pushed to breaking point. It outlines how unsafe workloads have resulted in one in five academic staff working an additional 16 hours per week, the equivalent of an extra two days' work on top of their contracted hours.
The report's findings include:
- Over half (53 per cent) of those surveyed showed probable signs of depression,
- Almost eight out of 10 (79 per cent) respondents said they need to work very intensively often or always,
- Almost one-third (29 per cent) reported feeling emotionally drained from work every day,
- One in five academics (21 per cent) work an extra two days (16 hours) per week on top of contracted hours.
Staff left with no choice
“This report makes for stark reading, but sadly won't come as news to the thousands of university staff who have been pushed to breaking point by their own employers,” Grady underlined. “Over half of those surveyed are showing signs of depression, whilst almost eight in ten report regularly intense workloads. These figures should shame every single vice-chancellor in the UK who, rather than criticising university staff balloting for strike action over these issues, should demonstrate they take the welfare of their workforce seriously.”
She also acknowledged that “staff know full well that industrial action will cause disruption, but these statistics are a timely reminder as to why staff have been left with no choice.”
The UCU leader went on to explain that “students and staff alike will benefit from an improved culture in our universities, that treats staff as valuable human beings, rather than a transactional resource that can be picked up and dropped whenever.”
A lecturer lived in a tent
Meanwhile, an article published by The Guardian national newspaper noted that “higher education is one of the most casualised sectors of the UK economy, and for many it means a struggle to get by”. It detailed the hardship experienced by English lecturer Aimée Lê, who lived in a tent for two years while she taught students. While in her tent, she looked forward to the “reward of stability” after her PhD. She knew she might still end up taking some shorter-term contracts but thought they would overlap, and she would never have to worry about secure housing again.
In relation to precarious work, updated UCU research shows that one-third of academics are employed on fixed-term contracts, and 41 per cent of teaching-only academics are on hourly paid contracts. Women and Black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff are more likely to be employed insecurely.
UCU president Vicky Blake said: “Many people are still shocked to learn that higher education is one of the most casualised sectors in the British economy. There are at least 75,000 staff on insecure contracts: workers who are exploited, underpaid, and often pushed to the brink by senior management teams relying on goodwill and a culture of fear.”