On 29 June 2022, all the staff at Queen Mary University of London, where I work, received an email from management. To our horror, they were threatening to withhold 100% of our pay for 21 days of both July and August, because we were participating in a marking boycott over pensions, pay, labour precarity, inequality and working conditions. Life in the higher education sector had been getting tougher ever since I started my career in 2017. But at that moment, I not only resolved to continue to strike, but redoubled my efforts to get as many colleagues as possible to join me on the picket lines. The condescension from my employers made me feel something stark and visceral.
I hadn’t always felt so jaded. I finished my PhD in law in 2016 and was ready to begin a life of service in education and research, working in the subject I cared passionately about. But several things quickly became clear. There was the increasing precarity of university labour: one-third of academics are on fixed-term contracts, 41% are on hourly paid contracts and there are still 29 institutions employing at least five academic staff on zero-hours contract. In 2021, it was reported that pay had been cut by 20% in real-terms over the past 12 years, while changes to the pension scheme mean that we’ve taken a 35% cut to our guaranteed retirement income despite contributing more. Meanwhile, university and college staff are doing the equivalent of two days’ unpaid work every week on average. It’s an environment that leaves me feeling, like many others, disillusioned and questioning my future.
At my university, the current round of industrial action has been going on since 2017. In 2022, the management had threatened to withhold 100% of staff wages because we had taken action short of strike (Asos). During Asos, staff work to contract and no more – no weekends preparing classes or volunteering for recruitment activities, no staying an extra couple of hours or working through lunch. We also refuse to reschedule or make up the teaching cancelled during strike action and engage in a marking and assessment boycott.
The timing of the July and August pay deductions came as a shock to everyone. In the midst of the worst cost of living crisis for more than half a century, when my colleagues were struggling to pay rent, mortgages, childcare costs and student debt and when inflation and national insurance contributions had risen, the response of our management, many of whom earn six-figure salaries, was to deduct 42 days’ pay over two months.
This demonstrated a complete disdain for the people who make the university, who attract thousands of students each year from all corners of the world, who produce world-class research that changes lives and improves our understanding of a complex world (such as shifting global discourse on the genocide of the Rohingya), and who provide important pastoral support for students who continue to suffer from a mental health crisis. It illustrated an utter contempt for our students, too; our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. We had all had enough.
Of course, it didn’t have to be like this. The economic arguments for slashing our pensions have vanished, with the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension fund now exceeding pre-pandemic levels. The higher education sector is running around a £40bn surplus and it would take only a small percentage of that to satisfy inflation-level pay rises. Instead, university managers have flailed and floundered, creating more and more anxiety and misery among the very people who make the institution and the students it claims to care about. At my university, several colleagues have left as a result, with management’s attempt to push students to “snitch” on colleagues if they cancelled classes as a result of strike action the last straw for some.
But we are moving them. The experience on the picket lines is always a pleasure. It is an opportunity to spend time with colleagues, and very often students, outside the classroom. We talk about the dispute, yes, but we also talk about what we got up to at the weekend, which restaurant we ate at the other night, Manchester United’s meteoric rise up the table, or our colleague’s daughter’s first steps. There is music, food, banner painting, chalking on the pavements, all set against a cacophony of car horns beeping in support. And February’s statement by Universities UK, which represents our employers, and the University and College Union, suggesting that pensions could be improved, shows that solutions can be found if the will is there.
I love working at Queen Mary University of London. My colleagues are publishing some of the most exciting research and working with the most important charities and social movements across the world. My students come from across the globe, and some have gone on to be fearless lawyers representing marginalised and vulnerable people, or courageous activists fighting police brutality and climate breakdown. They continue to remind me what a privilege it is to teach them. I want to preserve all this for my colleagues and students, but also for the next generation of would-be academics and curious minds. This is not just a dispute on the state of the sector, but a test about how much we really invest in the idea of teaching and research as a public good.