Exeter, Devon UK • May 21, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home News “It’s the last option we have” University staff strikes over pensions and pay begin in Exeter

“It’s the last option we have” University staff strikes over pensions and pay begin in Exeter

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Image: Aaron Loose

University staff members took to the picket lines across Streatham and Penryn today to protest against freefalling working conditions and changes to their pension benefits. 

The University and Colleges Union (UCU), the largest Higher Education union in the world, have announced eight days of industrial action that will run from 25 November to 4 December.

As a result, union members from over 60 universities will not give lectures, mark assessments or step onto campus grounds.  

Image: Harry Caton

The UCU are striking on two different disputes. One centres on a dispute between UCU members and University employers over the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), a £60bn pension fund.

The other dispute focuses on staff working conditions, which many UCU members believe are in decline.

At around 8am, UCU members gathered across five picket lines: Stocker Road, Queen’s Drive, Thornlea, St. Luke’s and the Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

We work intensely hard to make the student experience fantastic. It’s almost like we have been disrespected by the senior management.

Sharon Strawbridge, President of the Exeter UCU branch

Picketers, who included both university staff, fixed-term postgraduate researchers and sympathetic students, handed out leaflets and cookies to passing students. Some picketers waved flags and placards branded with slogans such as “We Earned It – We Deserve It – We Demand It.”

At around a quarter to 12pm, picketers from the Queen’s Drive and Thornlea picket lines came together and marched to Stocker Road to form a larger demonstration.

The large assembly sent a strong indication that the UCU’s planned 4 December rally, scheduled for the last day of the current industrial action, will draw a large turn out.

Sharon Strawbridge, President of the Exeter UCU branch (EUCU), helped lead the day’s demonstrations. She explained, “the reason we are taking the stand is because it’s the last option we have. 

Video: Harry Caton

“We have got two disputes. One to save our pensions, and one because we’ve had a slow erosion of our the value of our salary. Over the last ten years, it’s resulted in our salaries effectively dropping by twenty per cent.

“We have chosen to stay in Exeter, and we rely on Exeter to look after us. A lot of private sector jobs would be paying a great deal more than in academia. We are taking a hit by being here, but we like our students, and we like our jobs.

“The support we received from students is because the students know we actually really care. The people out here aren’t trying to ruin student’s lives. We work intensely hard to make the student experience fantastic. It’s almost like we have been disrespected by the senior management.”

Strawbridge also cited gender pay and equality issues and workloads as “major problems”. 

There are people on this picket line using food banks, and that needs to stop.

Phillipa Davey, South West UCU regional official

The median pay gap at the University of Exeter shows that female staff members receive 84p for every pound paid to their male colleagues.

The University has not yet released BAME pay gap figures. However, the UCU calculates the pay gap between white and BAME staff could be as much as 14 per cent.

Phillipa Davey, the South West UCU regional official, spoke on on fixed term and zero hours style contracts. Davey credited the University for holding negotiations with the UCU on reducing casualised contracts, but felt frustrated that the process had slowed down. 

Image: Aaron Loose

She said “There are people on this picket line using food banks, and that needs to stop.”

One academic, who works in the College of Humanities, told us “the environment at the moment, it’s energetic, it’s mobilized – yet it’s important to remember that so many of us are angry, are sad, are disillusioned by all of this. We’re here because we want to be heard.”

The working conditions dispute also involves professional service staff members (PSS). These are employees who provided key administrative and maintenance work, such as library technicians and IT support staff.  

A library technician said “This year, we certainly have felt the impact of the extra students. There are an extra 2000 students. So we are very busy.”

However, while the picketers spoke often about their dissatisfaction with the university, the atmosphere was warm and friendly.

Image: Aaron Loose

Drivers honked their horns in support as they drove past the picket, and one lecturer commented that the strikes represented a rare chance for staff to talk and meet each other. 

Music also had a big presence on the picket lines. Stocker Road saw an impromptu performance of popular trade union anthem ‘Solidarity Forever’, whereas the picketers at Queen’s Drive listened to classic Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen protest songs.

The eight days of planned demonstration follow the unprecedented two weeks of industrial actions that brought universities to a standstill in March 2018.

Despite the large demonstration, some students did cross the picket. One PPE student said they supported the strikes, but also wanted to put their degree first. 

Image: Aaron Loose

They further explained: “If I don’t attend these lectures, I could end up failing my degree.”

However, several students stood in solidarity with UCU members. One undergraduate said: “My friends, the majority of them support the strikes, my partner does, my family do. The momentum is bigger now, I think.” 

The University has responded to the strike action by promising support for affected students.

In an email sent on 6 November, Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, stated: “Please let me reassure you that we are working hard to ensure the impact any planned strike action may have on your experience is minimised and that your academic outcomes are protected.”

The UCU industrial action is ongoing. Follow @ExeposeNews on Twitter for updates.

Additional Reporting by Neha Shaji, Emma Hussain, and Chloe Pumares

Editor: Harry Caton

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