University staff are angry that their “brutalising working conditions” have seen “no improvement” in the last two decades.
The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) have chosen to strike on several issues, including the increase in casualised and precarious teaching contracts.
Day two of the eight-day industrial action period saw university staff braving the rain across all four Streatham and St. Luke’s pickets.
Exeposé spoke to an academic who told us they “wanted to support casualised staff in particular.”
They said “in terms of the brutalising working conditions that I have experienced back in the 2000s, I’ve seen that there has not been any improvement.”
The academic was concerned that casualised contracts would dissuade graduates from working in universities.
They said “I think it’s really important that academia as a viable career path remains open to the next generation of scholars.”
On approaching the subject of strikes with students, they were initially “actually scared broaching it with my students in a seminar room.”
Everyone who goes into academia now is very aware of the possibility – or inevitability – of them ending up as casualised staff, and universities prey on this resigned acceptanceUniversity of Exeter PhD Student
However, the academic was moved to learn that most students supported the strikes and wanted to help out during the industrial action.
“What I took away was that most students were in solidarity, and that reflects the survey that the Guild did.”
They were referring to the results of a Student Guild survey that polled students on their views on the industrial action. 78 per cent of students were in support of the UCU’s cause. Guild Officers were seen supporting the picketers throughout the day.
The academic finished by saying the decision to strike was not one they took “lightly.”
They elaborated “Given the lack of positive change and a real sense that we are not being listened to. In some ways we are just a group of people to be managed and corralled and wanted in effect just to be docile bodies in the workplace. It then wasn’t much of a leap to stand out here in solidarity.”
One picketer detailed their own experience of precarity. They said “for some years after my PhD, I was employed on a series of fixed term contracts, usually of a year in length, but sometimes less.
“This is an endemic situation in higher education, where you are often called to teach at very short notice and suddenly need to come up with the teaching materials.”
They continued about the everyday reality of precarity, which can lead to stress and financial insecurity.
The staff member said “it’s a piecemeal existence and very stressful. When you spend enough time applying for jobs, during that time you can’t really focus on teaching. The students suffer as a consequence.”
They acknowledged the positive impact of “camaraderie and solidarity” on the picket lines, but also described the personal cost of strike action as “very difficult, because it is a complex situation. Not everybody is onboard and you do feel some hostility from some quarters.”
In a 2016 investigation by The Guardian, Exeter was ranked the 6th most insecure university in the UK. At the time, 63.2 per cent of teaching-and-research staff were on temporary contracts. PhD students make up a large proportion of this casualised workforce.
Exeposé also spoke to a PhD student who stood in solidarity with the striking staff members. They claimed advertisements for casualised contracts “preyed” upon postgraduates seeking a career.
The University of Exeter employs the eighth highest number of casualised or short term contracts in the United Kingdom.UCU figures
They said “everyone who goes into academia now is very aware of the possibility – or inevitability – of them ending up as casualised staff, and universities prey on this resigned acceptance by constantly advertising such positions and giving the impression that they are a ‘stepping stone’ to a more stable and permanent career.
“It is particularly disheartening for younger academics to be counting pennies while living with the reality of having to move cross-country at any given moment depending on who offers a stable and permanent contract.”
They ended by saying that the majority of PhD students were wary of casualisation, but were nevertheless “tasked with almost competing for casualised spots.”
On 13 September, the Exeter UCU launched an anti-casualisation campaign. According to UCU figures, the University of Exeter employs the eighth highest number of casualised or short term contracts in the United Kingdom.
At the time, the University responded by reporting that 4.5 per cent of their academic workforce work under short-term casualised contracts.
The UCU industrial action will continue until 4 December.
The Exeter UCU are running a hardship fund for those affected by loss of pay from industrial action. You can donate to this fund via bank transfer here.
Additional reporting: Jordan Andrews, Louis Donohoe, Aaron Loose, Isabella Nova
Edited by Aaron Loose (Copy); Harry Caton