UCU Strikes: The Ultimate Warning Against An Academic Career?

The ongoing UCU strikes force those hoping to pursue a career in academia to view their future through a new lens.

Lucy Lawrence
26th February 2022
Image Credit: Lucy Lawrence

The University College Union (UCU) strikes regarding proposed pension cuts officially began across 44 universities on Valentine's Day and are scheduled to last until February 18th. Despite the initial romantic start date, the relationship between staff and university management could not be further from amorous, with a further five days of strike action regarding the “Four Fights” to take place across 68 universities over upcoming weeks.

The precarity of academia has never been more apparent or concerning, with staff across the UK facing a 17% pay cut in real terms since 2009, 3000 redundancies across the pandemic, and a proposed 35% cut to their pensions. Staff across disciplines and roles are fighting to leave behind what many view to be a toxic relationship with University management. When one considers the University’s uncompromising position on Action Short of Strike (ASOS), which quite literally translates to working to contract, it is difficult not to make such a bleak analogy. Despite not offering overtime or compensating those who work beyond contractual obligations, University management has decided to threaten the deduction of 100% pay from our lecturers who do not exceed their contracted work.

The 'Four Fights' that are the basis for the strikes.

As an undergraduate with aspirations to enter academia, such insight has undoubtedly shattered any naïve illusions of security or fairness to be found in the academic world. Indeed, Newcastle University's EDI 2021 report indicates that there remains a 17.8% gender, 13.1% disability, and 15.1% race pay gap within our institution. In my most cynical moments, I have discerned that there is seemingly little pay-off for the overwhelming amounts of debt, work, and sacrifice required to even qualify for a lecturing position– never mind then procuring a stable contract with decent working rights and pay. While I want to chase my passions for Literature, education, and outreach work, it can feel hard to justify my career goals in light of so many institutional inequalities and obstacles.

Spurred on by such lingering worries, I joined and interviewed staff on the picket line. My goal was to learn first-hand whether the recurring strikes should act as a cautionary tale against academia, or rather as a hopeful symbol that change is possible.

Staff on the picket line shared matching sentiments of emotional strain regarding strike action. Unfortunately, this was not their first rodeo. All four members of staff who I interviewed shared that they have participated in strike action more than three times over many years. English Literature lecturer, Kirsten MacLeod, commented that she “always feels a little nervous coming to the picket line”, but that “it gets easier the more you do it”.  She elaborated that the potential for abrasive interactions with the public and students can be anxiety-provoking. Yet, feelings of solidarity do help to overcome such tensions– particularly when passing cars honk to show their support.

Strikers got creative with their signs. Image credit: Lucy Lawrence

Moreover, feelings of anger towards uncompromising management were expressed by staff members, Marine Biologist, Gary Caldwell, and IT technician, Dave Churchley. However, solidarity once again arose as they agreed that “there’s disappointment and frustration– but because it is necessary, there’s a really strong spirit amongst the people who are here”. Business lecturer, Robin Brown, conveyed mutual sentiments, concisely summarizing his experience of strike action as “struggle, solidarity, and coldness”.

Regarding the future of academia, striking staff appeared to retain hope for change powered by their activism (albeit with justified levels of pessimism). There was a unanimous criticism of the marketization of Higher Education, which commodifies the university experience– prioritizing profit (student debts) and product (degree qualifications) over learning and community. As such, staff face increasingly unmanageable workloads, while students become alienated from their educational development. Reflective of this concern is the statistic that 80% of Newcastle University staff reported that their workloads were “unmanageable” in 2021, due to overwhelming class sizes and administrative demands.

UCU set the tigers on Newcastle University and their unjust treatment of their staff. Image Credit: Lucy Lawrence

While it is unlikely that the government will clear student debts and fees any time soon– it is sadly more likely that they will only continue to rise in both interest and price– to see staff so vocally condemning the system was inspiring. Staff are not only fighting for their professional and financial security and wellbeing, but also for that of their undergraduate and postgraduate students. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions. The UCU’s dispute crosses generational and professional boundaries, fighting for the present and future of academia. As UCU president, Vicky Blake, urged strikers on the picket line to remember and celebrate, “Look around you and at the family around you. We support each other”.  

Hence, if I do end up pursuing academia, I can only hope that this emotionally and financially taxing activism yields the necessary changes to Higher Education. Ultimately, there is a power in unionization and solidarity, that for me, combats worry of uncertainty regarding this career path. Hope for significant change depends upon a politically active and caring community. We certainly have this powerful collective at Newcastle.

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