An insight into the university strikes: GZT in conversation with the President of UCU at UEA
Delving further into the never-ending strikes across higher education, GZT mag come into conversation with Michael Kyriacou, the President of the UCU at the University of East Anglia
I’m sure we’ve all been affected by tube and railway strikes that have been taking place over the last few months. The frustration you feel when you have to look for alternative routes that either cost more or double your journey time is something that is not unique to just you - we have all experienced it.
February 1st was a landmark day for strike action across many sectors, with half a million workers across the UK staging what was described as “the most important coordinated walkout for a century”. However, strikes have become increasingly common over the last few months, especially as the effects of inflation worsen.
Why so many strikes?
One of the main sources of workers' dissatisfaction is pay. The pay divide between the public and private sectors has become especially sharp over the past year as the cost of living crisis intensifies. Much of the industrial disputes are in partially or wholly public sectors such as education, healthcare, and transport. Railway staff, nurses, paramedics, teachers, and civil servants are demanding pay rises that at least match or exceed inflation, as well as fairer working conditions. Teachers’ unions have demanded an above-inflation pay rise, funded fully by the government, whilst 100,000 civil servants have been striking for a 10% pay increase.
Why are the strikes taking place all at once?
With the rising cost of living crippling British citizens, the crisis has become a unifying force behind demands for higher pay. It has prompted union leaders to coordinate simultaneous industrial action over the last month, across various sectors to cause maximum disruption in society. Here are some of the strikes that took place throughout February:
The pause on strikes across higher education
University staff who are members of the UCU (University and College Union) were set to have 13 days worth of industrial action from the 1st February - 2nd March. However, as of the 17th February, UCU paused strike action after 'real progress' was made in talks with UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers' Association) over pay, conditions and pensions. This means that the previously planned schedule of a further seven days of strikes from Tuesday 21st February will no longer take place.
As Gen-Zs are the demographic that is most impacted by strikes across higher education, GZT decided to speak to Michael Kyriacou, the President of the UCU at the University of East Anglia. We interviewed him on what the pause on the UCU strikes mean, and what the future holds for university staff and students alike.
Kyriacou says that staffs’ demands are rooted in four key issues:
1. Inadequate pay
“This one speaks for itself”, he says, alluding to the disparity between the stagnation in staff’s wages and the rapid surge in costs of living.
2. Increasing workload
“Academic workload is shooting through the roof. I myself know staff who are on what we call ‘2 FTE’, so their workload is equivalent to two full human beings doing a job. It’s unsustainable.”
3. Casualisation of employment (increase in 0-hour contracts)
“Often, academics are on very precarious 11 or 12-month contracts, cycling between different modes of it. If you’re lucky enough to have PhD funding, that’s a bit of extra money. If not, people are making their bread and butter in very insidious, precarious ways,” Kyriacou says. “Part of our fight is about ending the practice of 0-hour contracts, ending the cycle of casualisation, and creating a sector that is geared towards permanent, long-term employment. I think that everyone wants [that]. No one wants to be stuck on contracts that have end dates to them.”
4. Pay gaps - Gaps in wages influenced by gender, race, ethnicity and disability
“This [fight] is about making the employer report on a whole variety of different modes of pay gap, so we can ensure that we get a sector that is free from discrimination in terms of pay. Most universities don’t record disability, racial or ethnic pay gaps, so there’s a bit of a problem there with getting employers to start thinking about and engaging with these pay gaps.”
According to Kyriacou, the above disputes “aren’t separate strands”, but are actually “all woven together”. “You can end up with a real tapestry of exploitation here, where people are getting lower than inflationary pay rises, while being expected to do more work than what they’re contracted for. So you end up getting stung twice.” He says that some employees can be stung “a third or fourth time”, if they are on the wrong side of a pay gap and a fourth time if their contract is only temporary.
The situation looks even more grim for staff at the University of East Anglia. “I’m dealing with members who are facing compulsory redundancy. If the employer doesn’t meet the expectations of my membership [by agreeing to no redundancies], then we may well be in a position where we enter into a local dispute,” he says, a tone of protectiveness emerging in his voice.
Going forward: Will the pause on industrial action work?
The cancellation of the remaining seven days of strikes at UK universities has been branded “undemocratic” by some members of the UCU, who say employers’ offer of further talks was not sufficient enough to justify the decision. Some academics felt blindsided by the decision, as they were left scrambling to plan last-minute lectures following the union’s announcement that the remaining strike days would not go ahead.
Whilst Kyriacou empathises with this sentiment, he also understands the union's decision, since his own members may have to take up further industrial action against redundancies in the future. “It’s a complex situation at UEA. It might be that my position on the pause would be slightly different if we weren’t in this local situation.”
According to Kyriacou, only time will tell whether the pause on the strikes was a strategic move for the UCU. “The proof’s in the pudding with these things. If we get something out of it, the pause has been a good idea. If we get nothing out of it, then it was probably not great,” he says. “If UCEA strikes a deal before, that will be a sign of bad faith”, he continues. An indignant expression spreads across his face. It is clear how hard done by feels.
As long as the seven days of strike remain a lingering threat, the UCU still has an ace up its sleeve. “There are still seven days of action left next month,” says Kyriacou. However, he believes that the union is prepared for the worst possible outcome. “Perhaps the UCU may think that those 7 days won't be enough to move the employer. If that’s the case, we can give members a reprieve now, before more action comes later.”
The wider effects of the strikes on students and staff
Although determined to fight for the rights of his fellow employees, Kyriacou is very much aware of the negative repercussions industrial action has on both university staff and the student population nationwide. Whilst he acknowledges that industrial action “is not in the students’ interest”, he says that if UCEA fails to meet the UCU’s demands, he is sure students will understand that staff will “have to engage with their employer in the terms that they will be willing to listen to”. He continues, “If the employers meet our demands, all of the action gets called off. We want to take as few days of action as we can, because our members lose money when we take actions. There is art in getting the number of days of action just right.”
How has the government responded to all the strikes?
The UK government, which takes advice from independent finance bodies when setting public wage increases, has urged unions to cancel strikes while it holds talks with them. In response to pay increase demands, the government argues that inflation-matching pay rises would only fuel further price increases and cause interest rates and mortgage payments to rise further.
However, some demands have been met. On 24th February, the TSSA rail union accepted a 9% pay rise deal and therefore has decided to cancel all future strikes. For other rail unions, teachers’ unions and NHS unions, it seems that workers will continue to strike until their demands are met and the government starts taking action.