Opinions on UCU strikes at Exeter
Madi Wharmby interviews students and staff at Exeter University to gauge opinion on the necessity and effectiveness of the University College Union strikes that took place in November.
As we are all more than aware, the UCU recently took national strike action on 24, 25 and 30 November. The strikes were in relation to disputes over low pay rises and pensions, and, with the cost of living continuing to rise, staff members are understandably concerned and decided to take action.
There was a high level of support from students, with 60 per cent of students agreeing with the cause and action of the strike according to the Students Guild.
Exeter Students’ Guild commented: ‘We stand in solidarity with UCU and staff striking, including postgraduate students who teach. We recognise the seriousness of the current situation for staff and understand the aims of the strike in fighting for fair pay, pensions and working conditions. We acknowledge that students’ university experience wouldn’t be what it is without the quality of the lecturers and staff that we have.’
If we stopped fighting all the time, we might put some real pressure on the government to elevate working conditions for everyone
A student told Exeposé, ‘If any union doesn’t like their working conditions, regardless of their current pay, they are allowed to go on strike. That’s the whole point. And I think that saying ‘you shouldn’t be striking!’ is really counter-productive because it just causes conflicts within the workforce, instead of directing the complaints to the real problem: the government. If we stopped fighting all the time about who should and shouldn’t go on strike and actually united forces, we might put some real pressure on the government to elevate working conditions for everyone.
I understand that strikes can be really frustrating when they impact you. One of my seminars this week was cancelled and so I still don’t know what I’m writing my final essay on for that module, which is due in under two weeks’ time. But I understand that’s the entire point of a strike. Of course, they’re going to do it when it affects more people—they’re more likely to make an impact that way.’
Another student, however, had a different view: ‘I understand that the cost of living is rising, but at the same time, the lecturers have a duty to the students. Also, I think they take what they have for granted. My aunt in Nigeria was a teacher, and sometimes the teachers weren’t paid for months, and they still went to the school every day and taught because they realised they had a duty to the students and society.’
Another student reached out, saying, ‘I think they should be paid more because they’re really smart people, and the fact they go on strike, it affects us as well, which is really bad because the world wants smart people.’
On 24 November, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘Today’s picket lines are huge. 70,000 university staff have turned out like never before, defying bullying tactics from management to show they will no longer accept falling pay, pension cuts, brutal workloads and gig-economy working conditions. If vice-chancellors doubted the determination of university staff to save our sector then today has been a rude awakening for them.
‘We have been overwhelmed by the support of thousands of students who have joined us on the picket lines. They recognise that vice-chancellors are wrecking the sector for staff and students alike and are determined to stand with us and fix it.
Our members deserve a proper pay rise and the money is there to deliver it. Vice-chancellors now need to urgently address the concerns of staff otherwise our 70,000 members will escalate this dispute into next year.’
There is hope that there will be change in the university policies surrounding staff pay and working conditions. In an email sent to staff on 2 November 2022, Vice-Chancellor Professor Lisa Roberts outlined changes to pay scales, with Grades B to F receiving a pay rise. She commented: ‘The changes outlined above are being implemented in addition to the extra costs of the national pay increase of three per cent and the incremental progression that was applied to many colleagues’ pay as of 1 August 2022. The additional cost of introducing these changes is approximately £4 million. This cost will increase year on year and is in addition to our existing spending commitments.’
Though a pay rise is being implemented, many feel that the pay rise is not proportionate to inflation or their qualifications
The University also set out to improve equality, including closing the gender pay gap; advancing the Fair Employment for All initiative, which transfers employees from fixed-term to open-ended contracts and improves working arrangements for postgraduate teaching assistants; and reducing staff stress and workload.
Though a pay rise is being implemented, many feel that the pay rise is not proportionate to inflation or their qualifications. There is question about how far these initiatives will go to support university staff.
A lecturer told Exeposé, ‘The pension scheme company deliberately underestimated the health of the system while paying themselves huge salaries and bonuses. They “saved money” by misrepresenting what our pensions are worth. A pension is deferred pay – it’s not a lucky handout you get because you’re old and doddery. It is contractually defined, and they have been cheating. Meanwhile staff, who don’t come into the sector for glamour, fast cars or big houses, feel that the people who employ them are constantly looking for ways to chip away at our income. We think we are a key part of the whole operation and purpose of the uni.
Many sectors, including HE, have seen below-inflation pay rises for over a decade now. My salary buys 20 per cent less than it did ten years ago. That feels like theft and does not engender good industrial relations. I think staff have taken enough of this and are willing to fight. I’m one of those who always want the picket to be bigger. We had a very good turnout and will do it again if our money is not paid and the precarious contracts of many colleagues are not improved. Chancellors receive huge salaries; they often prefer to spend money on building things rather than the (to them) mundane business of the ongoing process of teaching and learning— they are too far removed from it.’