Strikes: A Student’s Perspective on What’s Actually Happening

The UCU strike which began on Monday is set to last for eight days from 25th November to 4th December 2019 in a bid to tackle issues of pensions, unfair pay and casualization of contracts, and to create lasting systemic change.

The University and College Union (UCU) represents members of university staff from postgraduates to librarians to lecturers in universities and other education centres across the UK. The UCU was officially formed in June 2006 following the amalgamation of two unions, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which was created in 1919, and the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NAFTHE), formed in 1967.

The University Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension fund brought an end to the final salary scheme and changed to a career advantage pensions scheme in 2011. This scheme is essentially a means of calculating pensions based on the amount of pensionable earnings accrued each year, and currently only 1/57th of pensionable earnings are received annually by staff members.

Retirement benefits have also been reduced in recent years which, in contrast with the increase in the cost of pensions and pay being withheld from members of staff, is detrimental to many academics’ situations, creating further uncertainty and hardship. Finally, the introduction of higher contribution rates to pension funds (currently at 9.6% of earnings but set to rise to 11% in April 2020) is creating a loss of immediate pay.

Casualisation of contracts, unequal pay and unrealistic workloads are all issues being disputed by those on strike this week. Since 2009, pay has been cut by nearly 20% for staff members, whilst workloads have continued to increase exponentially. Though it might seem trivial, the increasing demands placed upon staff members to fulfil tasks such as reviewing Encore recordings and emptying their own bins adds hours onto the time they spend at work, for which they are not paid. In addition to this, younger staff members are paid less than members who have been working the same job for longer and are simultaneously having to contend with inflation of living costs and house prices. Female, black and ethnic minority staff members are also paid less than many of their white, male counterparts which is unacceptable, and made especially so since in 2018 alone the Vice Chancellor’s salary was increased by 3.4%. Finally, the university has been advertising casual contracts which are open for less than 12 months, yet these contracts should be open for at least 12 months. Additionally, it is important that terms of work and pay are made fair for casual staff, particularly given the fact that wages for academics who are paid by the hour haven’t risen since 2008.

Though it’s frustrating to feel that the next week will lack structure and lead to students potentially missing out on crucial information for exams, it’s vital that changes are made. It’s unrealistic to expect academics to continue to provide us with high quality information and courses if they are unable to support themselves financially or have enough free time to rest and have a life outside of their job. As students, we too are part of a system which is perpetuating unrealistic expectations and poor salaries; we should be using our voices to affect change rather than complaining about our fees being wasted – this really will be the case if there is no systemic change. Further information about the strikes has been emailed around by departments, and is also available on the Durham University website, as well as the UCU website – get clued up!

Durham Strike Action page: http://durhamucu.org.uk/strike/

Durham call for action: http://durhamucu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/whyvoteyes-nup.pdf

 

Featured image: “Striking staff outside Durham University” by ITV Tyne Tees 

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