Universities strike again

By Alex Colas

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Today staff across 58 Higher Education institutions start a three-day strike and indefinite action short of a strike geared at stopping pensions cuts, closing pay gaps, reversing rampant casualisation, reducing chronic overwork and attacking sector-wide workplace inequality.
The fresh wave of industrial action comes after the 2019-20 strikes were abruptly halted by the pandemic lockdown, and a compromise on pensions in the shape of a tripartite Joint Expert Panel was tasked with identifying ways forward on that part of the dispute.
Although the pensions dispute is undoubtedly complex in both detail and the various stakeholders involved, the bottom line is that employers’ representatives have used all the tricks in the book -including largely ignoring the expert panel’s various recommendations, and endorsing a March 2020 valuation of the pension scheme, just as the world economy went into tailspin – to break the back of a defined benefits scheme which is unattractive to potential investors in the ‘big brand’ universities like Oxbridge, UCL or Imperial College. Meanwhile, the sector’s dominant business model was laid bare as rent was extracted from students trapped in halls of residence during the pandemic, while hourly-paid staff face the consequences of extreme casualisation.
During the worst of the pandemic, teachers and support staff kept universities afloat through emergency online teaching and heroic levels of pastoral care. Their commitment is being rewarded with an intransigence on pensions which even liberal commentators find misplaced, and a systematic deskilling strategy through the wholesale turn to online delivery that follows the famous mantra of not letting a good (Covid) crisis go to waste.
Against the the backdrop of a global pandemic, Tory anti-union laws and an offensive posture from employers, the UCU has done well to get a solid mandate for industrial action in the coming months. There are, however, several aspects to the dispute which place special tactical and strategic challenges for the union.
The first is the combination of a defensive action over pensions with a transformative ‘four fights’ over pay, job security, workloads and inequalities. Pensions are rightly framed as an issue of deferred payment, but they inevitably speak to an older, more established part of the sector’s workforce than do the ‘four fights’ which tend to more directly affect a younger and more diverse demographic of casualised staff. The multi-pronged nature of the action is further compounded by the mainly national context of the pensions dispute and the prospect of local differences among employers’ stance and practices with regard to the ‘four fights’. Holding together this broad coalition of interests whilst focusing on winnable mobilisations and negotiations in all these areas is no mean task.
The roll-out of ‘blended learning’ during the pandemic with a mix of online and in-person teaching and learning, has diminished the material and symbolic power of empty university buildings and picket lines at main entrances. Online delivery has placed a premium on controlling digital content, and branches now have to think much harder about how to coordinate withdrawal of labour and disruption to ‘business- as-usual’ in an age of platform education. Tellingly, deskilling and loss of autonomy over content is being matched by interreference by the sector regulator Office for Students in industrial disputes, underlining the transformation of Higher Education into yet another marketised (online) service provider.
The UCU will from next week re-ballot 42 other HE institutions that narrowly missed the 50% turnout threshold to join further escalatory action in the new year. Success in bringing the remaining branches over the line will be crucial to both capturing density and the geographical reach of the membership, with major universities like Cardiff, Oxford, Warwick, Manchester and Southampton currently without a full strike mandate. As the industrial action continues into the winter, all eyes are set on the Spring exam season for a marking boycott that is likely to be the endgame of this dispute. The university degree is the commodity being sold: withholding final award will affect its exchange value whilst retaining the use-value of the actual education.

Alex Colás teaches international relations at Birkbeck, University of London