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Students and Staff Must Unite Against Education Marketisation

Students and Staff Must Unite Against Education Marketisation

From the 1st to the 3rd of December, members of the University and College Union across the country went on strike over four key issues: the gender, ethnic and disability pay gap; contract casualisation and job insecurity; rising workloads; and pay. As the UCU’s website explains:

“Staff pay has fallen by 20% after twelve years of below inflation pay offers whilst almost 90,000 academic and academic-related staff are employed on insecure contracts.

The gender pay gap in UK universities sits at 15%, whilst the disability pay gap is 9% and the race pay gap is 17%, staff are also experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression.”

In addition to this, 3,000 staff were made redundant during the Covid-19 pandemic, and there is a further dispute over substantial cuts to pensions. Meanwhile, the University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor is sitting on a handsome £460,000 in yearly earnings.

I joined UCU members on the picket line at North Gate on Thursday and Friday, and I was glad to see other students there braving the cold weather to support staff. It was also great to be joined by supporters from across the Labour movement, including representatives from other trade unions and Birmingham City councillors. There was a real sense of unity and solidarity on the picket line, with everyone pitching in to hold signs, hand out leaflets and distribute well-earned snacks.

Talking to academics and postgraduate teaching staff, it was clear that the working conditions imposed by Universities UK (UUK) and University of Birmingham senior management are untenable. At the rally on Friday, we heard stories of postgraduate teaching assistants struggling on precarious contracts, and academics driven out of the profession by the overwhelming workloads. There were powerful testimonies from union members, many of whom were very frustrated, having been on the picket lines last year and in 2019 striking over the same issues.

Students are so often made to feel like we are simply a source of income for universities – that is certainly how we are treated by university management. It was refreshing to be reminded that lecturers and staff are on our side and value higher education as something more than a commodity. As one of the speakers at the rally highlighted, no academic is in it for the money – they do it because they believe in the power of education, and because they want to help students reach their potential.

As students, we should stand in solidarity with striking staff. In the weeks running up to the industrial action, it was disappointing, but not surprising, to receive a series of emails from the university proclaiming that the strikes were unwelcome and disruptive, despite the fact that management had the power to prevent them by agreeing to the UCU’s demands. University management will attempt to use these tactics to divide us and pit students against staff, but we must resist this and stand together against the marketisation of education, which continues to have disastrous consequences for students and staff alike. As the results of the Guild of Students referendum show, students overwhelmingly support the strikes, as we recognise that staff’s working conditions are our learning conditions.

If sufficient action is not taken to address the UCU’s demands, it is likely that further strike action will be called in the new year. Hopefully the disputes can be resolved and further action will not be necessary, but if staff are forced to return to the picket lines, I know that I and many other members of BULS will be out there supporting them once again.

Eleanor Falshaw

4 Dec 2021