In conversation with: Dr Alex Prichard
Online News Editors, Amélie Thompson and Megan Haynes, spoke to Dr Alex Prichard, the University of Exeter’s UCU President, about his role, the reasons for strike action, and his message to students.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Exeposé: What made you want to join the University and College Union (UCU)?
Dr Alex Prichard: I think I’ve been a member of the UCU since about 2007, when I first got my first academic job. I joined because I think unions are important parts of all workplaces, and I think that it’s probably the only democratic forum we have as workers in any employment. It’s important to support that collective voice. I had just come out of my PhD, and I had a job at Bath. We weren’t facing any particular struggles at that time, but then over the next few years, things changed very rapidly with the increase of student fees and so on from 2010.
I became a rep and caseworker for the Exeter UCU branch in 2018, after having a lot of support from Brian Rappert, who’s now our branch secretary. I thought, “if the Union supports me when I need help from them, I should give some of that back”. So that’s when I decided to do some rep training. Now, I spend nearly half of my time at work doing rep work, casework and union organising. It’s been really rewarding.
É: What are some of the positive changes that you’ve seen as UCU rep, and what needs improvement?
AP: The problem is, higher education doesn’t feel like it’s improving one jot, if I’m being honest. Most of the time, small gains feel like huge victories. As a rep, we are trained to support colleagues. For example, if someone is coming back from a long-term sick leave, reps will support them as they transition back into work. We can also help people through disciplinary issues or if they have grievances against their employer. My role is really to mend relationships. In a big workplace like this, you need to get on with your colleagues and line managers. A lot of what we do as a rep is we support colleagues to get those relationships working again.
I also have to say that in the last couple of years, credit to the University and the senior management, HR has changed quite a lot. They’ve been doing a lot of work to try and bring people off casual contracts – or what were effectively zero-hour contracts – onto more permanent ones. They have also increased support for women regarding promotion and progression, which has been really positive. Over the past year, helping colleagues has probably the biggest highlight for me on a personal level. But everything else feels really doom and gloom at the moment. It just doesn’t feel like there are many good news stories to tell, unfortunately.
É: Could you outline the reasons for the upcoming strikes?
AP: In principle it’s really simple, the problem is the fixing of it. The problem is structural: student fees haven’t gone up in nearly a decade, and the costs to universities have, and at the same time, everyone’s pay has been suppressed. If fees aren’t going up but costs are, universities have to save money elsewhere. This creates a constant churn of cost savings from management by ‘transforming’ admin structures or departmental structures to save money, because the money is not coming in from student fees. The only way to get money from student fees is to increase the numbers of students, but this pushes up staff to student ratios, increasing workloads, and class sizes.
At the moment, people coming into the sector are being paid around 25 per cent less than I was when I started. This generation of workers are the first who will have been employed by the university and had to take out student loans. This creates an unsustainable model, as people can’t afford to be lecturers and pay off their loans, meaning that people are leaving. Adding to this, new people are not joining the sector, which has a knock-on effect on pensions in the future. So, we are facing a bit of a structural crisis at the moment, and it’s not clear to me that anyone in senior positions has a solution to this.
At the moment, people coming into the sector are being paid around 25 per cent less than I was when I started.Dr Alex Prichard
This is a problem that has been a decade in the making: when student fees were introduced, everyone must have known that at some point the fees would have to go up. Either that or money would have to come from elsewhere. There are three sectors in the current economy that are doing the worst in terms of pay deflation: higher education lecturers, primary and secondary education teachers, and nurses. These are the three sectors where pay has taken the biggest hit over the last 15-20 years. There is a fundamental flaw in government funding.
So, we are not really striking against the University of Exeter, so to speak. It’s not up to them alone to fix this. It would be great if they could pay us more, and yes, we’re having conversations about that with senior management. But the problem is sector-wide: while some universities have changed in terms of their shape and structure to accommodate more students, others shrink because there’s only a finite pool to draw from. We have some universities that simply cannot pay their lecturers more money and others that can. So, the university employers’ body is finding it difficult to come to an agreement about how they are going to solve this crisis because they cannot agree amongst themselves how much they can afford to pay.
So, we’re in the worst of all worlds here. Higher education is not a private sector, it’s not a public sector, it’s not regulated in the way that it might be or ought to be. There’s lots of different things that need to be fixed.
É: There are 18 days of strike action planned for February and March. Do you think this will solve the issues you are facing?
AP: I don’t think it will, no, which is really frustrating. Strike action is a last resort, but the problem is, it has been a last resort almost annually for the last however many years, and that’s a real shame. But we keep striking because we are seeing a constant deterioration of wages, pay, conditions, and so on. If you don’t stand up, it looks like you’re just happy to go along with it. But nobody really is. Ultimately, it’s your education that suffers, right? It’s the education that we’re in this for, and that’s what’s suffering. The strikes are a real pain, but they are really the only option that we have left.
If we were able to negotiate a pay deal amicably and sensibly, we wouldn’t be in this position. But the reality is that we haven’t been able to do that. If we didn’t have to go on strike, we wouldn’t. That’s the simple fact of the matter. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have to organise meetings and have interviews like this. I have marking to do too, so this really is a massive distraction, and an inconvenience for everybody, unfortunately.
If we were able to negotiate a pay deal amicably and sensibly, we wouldn’t be in this position. But the reality is that we haven’t been able to do that. If we didn’t have to go on strike, we wouldn’t.Dr Alex Prichard
É: Would you say that the current cost-of-living crisis is an important factor in why strike action is being taken this term?
AP: Yes, I would say it probably is. But don’t forget we’ve been striking for casualised and lower income earners for a number of years now, so the cost-of-living crisis has just exacerbated an ongoing problem.
One of the problems I mentioned earlier is that it is becoming too expensive to become a university lecturer. Let’s say you can’t afford the fees. Then higher education becomes more and more exclusive. If we want higher education to be open to all sorts of people, then we need to make sure it’s affordable as a career path. If we think about this from an equality, diversity and inclusivity point of view, these pay battles that we are in at the moment are about trying to ensure that we get a good diverse group of lecturers across the system. If we don’t, then we’re not really delivering the sort of education that higher education should provide. The cost-of-living crisis is exacerbating this problem because if people are finding it too difficult to stay in the sector, they’ll just leave.
Those who are most likely to leave are PhD students. Most PhD students are on funded projects, but they’re only on around £17,000 a year, so they teach to top this up. But PhD students are really some of the lowest paid people in the country: one wonders why they are being paid less than minimum wage and why this has been normalised. It’s just seen as part of the vocation. People cannot afford to live like that now, if they ever even could in the past.
So, if the cost-of-living crisis bites anywhere, it is particularly hard on PhD students. If rents go up and our PhD students cannot afford to stay here, they’ll leave and that has an impact on how many of them are able to take on full-time jobs afterwards. Our PhD students are the future of higher education, and the cost-of-living crisis is preventing their career progression, which will affect present and future students.
É: How does the upcoming UCU strike action relate to students?
AP: Our working conditions are your learning conditions. Not only are we striking for students now, but for future generations, and for the future of the country. Higher education is one of the most important parts of any thriving community. When we go on strike, it’s because we understand the structural pressures that this sector is facing and the difficulties that it will present not only for people this week, this term, this year, or the next two years of higher education, but for generations to come. If we don’t fix the funding model for higher education, the crisis will just deepen. If we’re going to fix this, there must be some negotiated settlement. That’s how all these things end. We need to show strength now to ensure we have a place at that negotiating table, because we need to be able to resolve this issue and our voices need to be heard in that debate.
Not only are we striking for students now, but for future generations, and for the future of the country.Dr Alex Prichard
É: What is the value of strike action?
AP: There are clearly issues everywhere, and people are feeling the pinch. We have to think about the people that this affects. But that’s why we strike, because that’s the only thing we can do, it’s all we have in our armoury. As our power is in our labour, being able to withhold our labour is an important and effective part of industrial relations. If management doesn’t see the workforce as strong, then the workforce is dominated. If the workforce can present a show of strength and if there are good institutional mechanisms like democratic forums so that staff can talk to senior management and so on, the power dynamic can be better balanced, leading to better working conditions. It’s easier to negotiate in those contexts. The problem we have at the moment, of course, is that the imbalance is sharply not on our side.
É: Do you have an overarching message to give to students that are worried about missing out on contact hours?
AP: First of all, it’s not just students that are feeling the action. Not all higher education staff are members of the UCU. Colleagues that are not members of the UCU are going to feel disruption too because ultimately the university has to stay open and there’s going to be a lower capacity because of the people that are on strike. It pains me, as I’ve got colleagues who have put together really innovative new modules for third-year students this term and they were really excited to be able to teach them for the first time. Now they are very disappointed that they can’t deliver that for their students. This is to say that students aren’t the only people affected. But the key thing is to say that we’re doing all we can for our students, and we hope that there will be a breakthrough in negotiations.
My overarching message to the students is to support us. The quickest way to bring this to a conclusion is to get behind the UCU struggle. If we are all in this together and we show a united front, we’re more likely to bring things to a quicker conclusion. But if we’re divided on this, then it’s going to be protracted and ongoing. One key thing is that we really would like students to engage with the Student Guild’s poll so that we can see what that sense of frustration really looks like.
My overarching message to the students is to support us. The quickest way to bring this to a conclusion is to get behind the UCU struggle.Dr Alex Prichard
Also, students can get involved with local politics, get involved with the Guild, speak to your lecturers; try and understand their positions. Debate with your lecturers too, about whether you think that striking is a good idea or not. They would love to hear alternative points of view. We want to hear different opinions: if we don’t get that, nobody’s really questioning and learning. So, we want to hear those positions and we want people to get involved in the debate. Overall, the message is to stand with us if you can, and if you want to; if you disagree with the strikes, you should still get involved in the debate, engage with student politics, engage with your lecturers, engage with the University. Don’t just stand by the wayside.
É: What are other ways that students can get involved and support the strike action?
AP: Often, students like to send letters to the Vice Chancellor, for example, but it’s unclear how useful or successful those personal interventions are. We also get students supporting us down on the picket lines. Some of the societies come down and we often have the Guild’s support too, bringing cups of tea and cakes and so on. That’s great, and much appreciated every time.
As I mentioned before, the key thing is to get involved with the debate. So, if there’s students willing to organise events, staff could be involved to talk about the strikes. Ultimately, this is your future too, and you should get involved because we can’t fix this on our own. We need as many voices as possible and as many different opinions and visions for the future.
At the moment, we’re not really having that debate here and we need engagement. We need to engage everybody, not just in higher education. One of the problems we’ve got is that higher education gets a bad rap these days, what with handwringing about ‘cancel culture’ and all that sort of stuff going on. This puts university lecturers’ interests right at the bottom of public priorities. But I think if the students get involved and have that conversation too, then things will change, because otherwise it just sounds like wingy academics. We would really like you to get involved in any way that you feel that you can.
É: Are there any demands that you have relating to the University of Exeter specifically?
AP: One of the things I said earlier was that the strike isn’t really against the University of Exeter per se: that’s true in one sense, but it’s also untrue in another. Our demands are coordinated through the UCU head office, and they talk to the employers’ representatives locally. However, we have been working really hard over the last four years to fix problems of casualisation, the gender pay gap and the copyright of digital resources here. These are areas in which we disagree with local management, along with issues around pay and pensions, of course.
In July last year, I initiated a process with senior management to negotiate a joint statement, which was released recently. We essentially tried to come to a baseline agreement around the sorts of principles and values for higher education that we share, particularly on pay, pensions, governance, workloads equality and casualisation. In those six areas we found points of common agreement, but also areas where we think that the University falls short. We’ve tried to show how the UCU can commit to Exeter’s 2030 strategy if these issues are addressed. The process of negotiation has been positive.
However, the key thing about this statement is that it’s not the last word. It’s the first word, it’s a baseline. What we wanted to do is say, look, we haven’t really had this dialogue before, and this would create a fruitful exchange of ideas between the UCU and senior management. We also wanted to give the University an opportunity to show how they’ve tried to fix problems such as casualisation and equality. The University has improved in these areas, and it’s really heartening. It shows that things can be done right, not just here, but across the sector.
We’re really hopeful that these sorts of discussions will be ongoing, and we can hold the university to account. We can say, look, you promised you would deliver on this, and they can say to us, well you said that you would help us promote X. If we develop this kind of relationship, we can also encourage more people to get involved with the UCU or in the wider debate, a cause people can plug into.
In short, locally we are working really hard to address little things that matter to our members, because they pay a lot of money every month to be a member of the UCU. We need to show that we are achieving small wins here, as well as engaging in the wider national debate. The University can fix certain things, but sector-wide, the problem won’t just go away. So, we still need to push. If we don’t push, nothing changes. That’s the simple fact of the matter.