When and why lecturers and tutors are striking, and why you should support it
If you're a student, either at Edinburgh or elsewhere, it's likely that at least some of your tutors and lecturers will be going on strike this February and March. I know that some students are quite upset about this, and others have questions that they'd like answered. I thought I'd put something together that aimed to answer those questions and explain why this strike is necessary and justified.
1. When are the strikes happening?
The strikes will be happening in an escalating series, going from 2 days, to 3, to 4, to 5. The first strikes are on Monday 22nd and Tuesday 23rd February. These won't affect Edinburgh as it's reading week (or whatever buzzword-y name the university has for it this year - the CREATIVE LEARNING JUICES JAMBOREE or something). Edinburgh will however be affected by the 3 day strike from Monday 26th - Wednesday 28th February, the 4 day strike from Monday 5th - Thursday 8th March, and the 5 day strike from Monday 12th - Friday 16th March. Edinburgh will also be striking for two days on Monday 19th and Tuesday 20th March.
In total, there will be fourteen days affected.
2. How will this affect me?
It depends. There will no doubt be some lecturers who will break the strike and teach on the affected days. However, the motion to strike had a turnout of 62.2%, with 87.6% voting in favour of strike action, so it's likely that most academics will not be engaging in teaching activities during the strike.
This means that lectures, tutorials and labs are likely to be cancelled or moved, and marking may also be delayed significantly. You'll likely receive communications from each course that you're on, indicating how they will be working through the strike.
3. Why are you striking?
There are many reasons to be discontented as an academic in the UK right now, but the primary motivation for this current industrial action is regarding changes to university workers' pension schemes.
Currently, pensions come primarily in the form of "defined benefit". That means that when you retire, you receive a pension linked to something like your final or average salary. Universities UK, who administer these pensions, are proposing a move away from this, towards a "defined contribution" pension. Under this model, you put in a certain amount, and how much you get when you retire is dictated by the performance of the market over the period of your working life. It is likely this will have a significant negative impact on people working in universities.
The Universities and Colleges Union has met with UUK to discuss the issue, but no agreement has been reached. Until such a time as there is some kind of agreement, strike action will go ahead.
UUK claims that there is a £7.5bn deficit in the assets vs. liabilities of the pension fund, and that remaining on a defined benefit scheme would require a significant increase in contributions from both employees and employers.
The UUK has chronically mismanaged this pension fund. Eight years ago, even in the wake of the financial crisis, it was ticking along nicely. Now, after a 7 year bull market, we're told that there's not enough money. Other university pension schemes (particular for the post-1992 universities) are doing fine. This is not a case of academic staff benefiting from an unsustainable model; it's simple mismanagement and the burden of that should not fall directly on to employees. The UCU has offered a reasonable alternative involving some increase in contributions from employees and employers, but thus far UUK has refused to consider anything other than moving to a defined contribution model.
4. I've paid a lot of money for university and this is incredibly unfair.
If you're concerned that this is going to be inconvenient to you as a student, that's fair enough, but I think there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
First, one of the points of a strike is to demonstrate the indispensability of the labour that is being withheld. If you are being adversely affected by your tutors or lecturers not teaching you, then that should indicate that they hold significant value in your life (or at least your degree).
Second, nobody *wants* to strike. People who work in academia generally do so because they love researching and teaching (though perhaps some of them love the latter a little less than they ought to). By comparison to other jobs they could hold with a similar level of qualification, they are paid extremely little. They are striking because they feel that they have no other option, and they take no pleasure in it. For many of us on casualised contracts this is going to result in a significant loss of financial resources because we can't claim for hours if we're on strike. For others, whether or not to strike is going to be a difficult decision because they love teaching their students and they don't want to let them down, but they also want to show solidarity with their fellow employees.
5. That's terrible. What can I do to help?
You can support your lecturers and tutors on the strike. That might be as simple as tweeting your support, or letting them know that you're on their side. It's incredibly difficult to make the decision to walk out and leave your students when what you really want to do is get on and teach.
You can also let the NUS know that you support the strike. The NUS has mandated that it supports the UCU, but so far its statements in support of striking academics have been decidedly lukewarm. We are far more likely to succeed in having our demands met if students show that they want and need us.
I recognise that supporting people who are likely better off than yourselves in a strike might seem galling. You're probably worried enough about never being able to own a house because you love avocado toast to a ruinous degree, and you have an enormous amount of student debt to pay back already.
But the net effect of this kind of action from the government - this squeezing and gradual deterioration of the conditions of labour for people whose work it claims to value - is to make university teaching worse. Academia doesn't pay well. One of the things it has historically had to recommend it is that it gives a decent pension to people who commit decades of their life to it. Taking that away is a significant deterrent to people who could very easily take their intelligence, qualifications and skills, and walk out the door into the arms of McKinsey or Bain.