Analysing the UCU Strikes: An Interview with Dr. Eliot Michaelson

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The ongoing UCU strikes pose many complicated moral questions to academics and students, as well as to the King’s administration itself. Roar interviews Dr. Eliot Michaelson, senior lecturer of Philosophy at King’s, on how to approach industrial action on campus.

R: Could King’s have done more to meet the demands of lecturers and prevent the strikes?

EM: It’s complicated. These things are done at a national level by UUK (Universities UK) and not on a university-by-university basis. We don’t know what King’s position is. Only a very small minority of universities wanted to engage constructively with the Union’s requests, and I don’t think there is any public record of which universities those are. What we haven’t seen from the Principle is any clear statement on how exactly he thinks things should proceed. He has said that he supports long term viable pensions… that’s great but we don’t know what he’s said to UUK behind the scenes.

It’s not like we would call off the strike if we knew that King’s was forthrightly supporting us because we would have to make sure they continue to support us. Again, it’s a national negotiation and without some national consensus there would be nothing to stop King’s going back on their word. Unfortunately, there is such a low level of trust that it just doesn’t really matter what Ed Byrne actually says, we’re not going to take his word on it.

R: Some universities are on a more general strike against things like temporary contracts, pay gaps and pensions. The King’s Union, however, is only striking for pensions. Do you think it’s a problem, especially with living costs being so high in London, that Union members on worse contracts and lower incomes are having to lose pay for a less pressing issue like pensions?

EM: It’s tricky. In many ways this was just a tactical decision on behalf of the Union, and I am sympathetic to the idea that is was a difficult choice with no clear answer.

There are a lot of problems with justice with respect to the employees of universities nowadays. We have the exploitative contacts that universities use — but I will give King’s credit for having taken some steps about those in recent years. We have a gender and minority pay gap which is pretty substantial, and that isn’t going away. We also have the general issue of low pay, particularly relative to the cost of living here in London, but also more generally compared to international standards of academic pay. Honestly, one of the driving issues is just that you have a lot of struggling people wanting to be academics that universities in this country have been all too willing to exploit.

These are issues all clearly related to the issue of the pension, which I take to be about long term viability. If you don’t have enough people joining a pension scheme, then the whole thing becomes unviable quite quickly. So, we need to keep it affordable for new staff. Now obviously people’s pay is low which means unaffordability become an issue more quickly, particularly for young academics being payed the least.

Maybe the Union decided to fight for pensions now just because of the position of negotiations at the moment. There is a certain logic with fighting for one thing at a time, but these are related issues so I can also see why you might want to fold them together as they have done at other universities.

What you really don’t want is for the only people that can work as academics to be from very privileged backgrounds and to look predominantly like me. We don’t want this to be a job that you can only reasonably afford to do if you come from a wealthy background. If you’re going have to go through years of exploitative 9-month contracts to even get a long-term job, it helps to not have to worry about having 3 months of the year where you don’t get payed — especially in a place like London. Having said this, however, my own feeling is that some of these other fights were better ones to take up first.

R: From a student’s perspective, missing lectures and contact time can be frustrating. Would you say students are right to feel entitled to money back from King’s?

EM: Students have every right to be pissed off about this. Maybe asking for money back is appropriate but you must remember that we’re giving up our salaries while we’re on strike, so it’s not like we’re running away with your money. My colleagues and I are striking because we care about the long-term viability and quality of this university. We care about not just you guys — who I am happy to grant are suffering educationally because of this — but about future generations of you having access to excellent lectures. The more King’s indicates to staff that they’re not a priority, the more that is in danger.

Accademia is a competitive international market. So, the worse working conditions are for lecturers here at King’s, the less competitive the staff will be and the more they will end up looking like privileged white dudes. I don’t want that to be what the university looks like in the long term. It’s sad that universities have collectively forced us to a place where the only way we can cry out is by withdrawing our labour, but this is the position we are in.

The question of whether students should feel entitled to education is very complex, particularly when you’re trying to operate in a society with massive inequality baked into it. If we had a more equal society, we wouldn’t have this thing, the ‘middle class’, which is unduly supported by higher education. That would make answering this sort of question much easier. That being said, given the that the current system demands that students pay a large amount of money to be here, you guys really do have every right to be pissed off.

However, it is still incumbent on students to think about what they care about in the long term. Am I with my lecturers in support of the UK having an excellent and accessible higher education system in the future? If you are, then you’ve also got to ask whether you think that asking for money back is a way to help bring that about. If it isn’t then maybe people should think twice.

I would just urge students to think about this issue more than purely in terms of how it affects them and remember that this is part of a larger fight for long term quality higher education in the UK.

R: Do you have any advice for people supportive of the strikes who have a mix of striking and non-striking lecturers and may have to cross pickets to go to some classes? It doesn’t seem immediately obvious how to reconcile one’s principles with the practicalities of having to pass exams and complete coursework.

EM: Again, this is tough. People are not striking for many different reasons, some of which I am sure are ideological and others are just practical. Given the conditions of working at a university, some people simply can’t afford to go on strike. I think people on every side of this should be eminently sympathetic to that. It’s not a good sign if your university lectures feel like they don’t have the financial means to go on strike, but that is the reality. This is even more the case for GTA’s. Many people are in really precarious financial situations and we need to be sympathetic to that.

I don’t know of anyone in my own department offering an exam where, if you decided not to cross the picket line you would be penalised. If this isn’t true in outside of Philosophy, then I have total sympathy with students — but it’s disheartening when you see students crossing the picket line without expressing any solidarity. We understand that sometimes you’re going to feel obliged to cross for one reason or another, but just take a second to express some solidarity with your lecturers who are sacrificing their wage and standing out in the rain for something they believe in.

Even if you are going to cross the picket, there are more ways to express solidarity than just not going to class. In particular, I think we as lecturers would be deeply grateful if the students who are supportive of the aims of the strike — whether or not you’re going to your lectures that haven’t been cancelled — would let KCLSU know that they support the strike, since currently the Student’s Union is ‘neutral’ on the strike. But even if the students want to disagree with us on tactics, I think we can all agree on the goal of keeping King’s an institution that attracts top-notch lecturers from around the world. You just can’t hope to do that unless you’re willing to invest in staff — including in their long-term financial security once they retire from King’s.

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