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KCL Strikes 2021: Everything You Need to Know

On Monday, October 18, the University and College Union (UCU) began balloting members to determine whether university staff will consider taking strike action “before the end of the year”. Since then, the King’s College London Students’ Union (KCLSU) has opened its own ballot, asking students if the organisation should support strikes.

Why have strikes been proposed?

The latest round of UCU strike proposals are based on a cut to retirement benefits voted through by Universities UK (UUK) in August 2021. This cut has been pitched as a means of staving off increases to pension contribution rates initially proposed by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), under which university staff members would have be required to contribute as much as 56.2 percent of payroll towards the fund, up from the current rate of 30.7 percent.

According to the UCU, the plan is based on a flawed valuation of the USS scheme which allegedly had an “overly pessimistic view of the higher education sector” and did not properly asses the industry’s asset base.

The potential strikes also intend to target issues of reduced pay for university staff, as well as pay gaps attributed to gender and race. As stated by the Union: “UCU is demanding a £2.5k pay increase; an end to race and gender pay injustice; a framework to eliminate the use of precarious contracts, such as zero-hours employment; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads.”

On October 20, the UCU announced that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA)’s chief executive had offered the union “yet another real-terms pay cut, insultingly packaged as a ‘pay uplift’”, stating that “we face a workload crisis. […] There’s only one way to force employers to listen.”

What has the KCL branch of the UCU said?

In a video posted to Twitter, KCL UCU president Dr Ewan McGaughey urged members to “vote yes, and vote early in the university strike ballot. […] We’ve got to raise everyone’s wages, not have them cut; end the gender and ethnicity pay gaps; end job insecurity, and stop the employer’s 25 percent pension pay cuts”.

The branch’s official Twitter account has since posted statements countering claims made by the university’s administration. Following an October 22 open meeting held by the KCLSU, during which Professor Evelyn Welch briefly spoke on the behalf of university administration, KCL UCU tweeted that Professor Welch “said she doesn’t know how much our Principal is paid but will ask and let us know. @KCL_UCU asked too but no answer. Why all this secrecy?” In a response the next day, KCLSU President Zahra Syed asked the union “not to misquote or provide false statements”, linking to a recording of Professor Welch’s statement at the event: “And that [previously quoted figure of Ed Byrne’s salary] is not what Shitij Kapur’s salary is. I will ask him to tell you, it’s not my job to tell you.” By way of final response, the UCU branch members said they “look forward to senior management sharing this information with the rest of the King’s community!”

The KCL UCU has also urged students to contact KCL’s principal, Shitij Kapur, with expressions of support. An excerpt from the letter template KCL UCU emailed to KCLSU society presidents reads: “During the pandemic, KCL staff worked tirelessly to keep my education going and to move teaching and learning online. It does not seem, however, that KCL management acknowledges and appreciates their efforts […] Given this increasing precarious of the academic profession, and unacceptable inequalities, I am deeply concerned about the quality of education for future years.

”[…] We want to attend our classes after one and a half years of pandemic. Our lecturers and professors love teaching us. We demand KCL senior management plays a part too.”

KCL UCU organised its own open forum on Thursday, October 21, inviting students to ask questions about the union’s considered action. There, Dr McGaughey argued that university management would use this opportunity to insist strike action is “not right”, and that students should in turn insist that management bargain to prevent industrial action. He also told students that KCL management has been doing a “tour of town halls for staff where only management can talk,” aiming to “convince everyone that everything’s alright”.

How has KCL administration responded?

Professor Evelyn Welch spoke at the KCLSU’s open forum on strike action, telling those present that students have had a “really tough eighteen months [and] really don’t deserve this,” adding that “our staff have also had a really tough time. We need to agree on that and the need to work together to ensure that workloads are sustainable and that pay and conditions are fair and attractive.

”Having said that, it is worth emphasising that the average academic salary at King’s is just over £60,000, and that, in addition, we put in almost 22 percent employer’s contribution towards staff pension. […] We’ve increased GTA pay and worked with a campaign group to ensure hours worked are fairly rewarded.

”We’re not claiming perfection; there is an issue with gender and ethnicity pay gap. This isn’t an equal pay issue; we pay the same to men and women, and to black and white staff that do the same jobs. But more women are in lower-paid jobs, more black men are in lower-paid jobs, and we need to fix that. We need to work together to fix that. We do have schemes in place to address this, and the reason for our 20 percent pay gap amongst black staff is because we in-sourced our security and cleaning staff; that was the right thing to do. You’ll hear a lot of numbers flying around – these are all disputed. Pay has gone up, not down.” She also extended an offer to provide students further information, either in written form or at future “town hall” events.

How have KCL students reacted?

KCL UCU’s October 21 meeting saw students from both sides attend. Coralie Belair, a third-year student representative for International Development, told organisers: “I completely empathise with your situation, but what do you have to say to third years who are facing a third year of disrupted teaching?” Referencing the UCU strikes conducted in the middle of the 2019/20 academic year. A fellow student added: “It happened two years ago and none of those lectures were ever replaced. […] I can’t afford King’s, I’m only here to get a better education.

”I find it absurd that we will be missing out on lectures that we will never get back. […] I feel there should be a different way to approach0 this without making students suffer because it’s not our fault. […] Even missing a week or two, we’re missing crucial topics. How can we justify missed lectures that we’re paying for?”

The KCLSU’s own open forum platformed similar speeches from students speaking for students’ union support of the UCU ballot. Marino Unger-Verna, third-years Classics with English student and Roar News Editor-in-Chief, argued: “While I agree [university staff members] are underpaid and undervalued within the industry, the concept of a strike, in terms of fighting for those rights staff members deserve, is flawed in the sense that a typical union strike aims to deny the employer, in this case King’s, the creation of their ‘product’, and therefore the revenue they gain from their consumer.

“However, in a university context, this is flawed logic, because we’ve already paid our tuition fees. […] The only way in which they would not receive them in the future is if we as students were to drop out. Based on that, the only people who suffer at the hands of a strike, in a traditional union strike context, are the students. […] The only way this type of strike would function is if staff members were to strike into the next academic year, denying the administration their profit from future generations of Freshers.”

Other students present at the KCLSU event spoke in support of UCU action. One speaker told attendees that the vote should come down to “a question of what our union’s values are. Ultimately, the ‘U’ in ‘KCLSU’ stands for ‘Union’. We might be a students’ union, but we are a union in the way that we exist together. And in terms of those values, it should be that we stand with other unions.

“The UCU has stood with us in the past […] so it would leave a sour taste in the mouth if, for a second time, to not support strikes about their conditions. Ultimately, if it was about tuition fees going up again and UCU didn’t back it because ‘it doesn’t affect us, we’re lecturers,’ that would obviously annoy us. […] Saying that the strikes disrupt students and disrupt learning- the angle doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The reason that these things will be disrupted is because, at the moment, there’s no solution to the pension scheme. The pension dispute existing is the reason the strike is going to happen, […] because it already exists.”

A postgraduate student in attendance, Adam Roberts, argued the question was “mis-framed”, stating: “Everyone accepts that strikes would be a bad thing. Staff don’t want to go on strike. We know it affects students – it would affect my students as a GTA, and it would mean I would have however many days without pay as a GTA. […] If Marino’s argument is the best argument against the strikes, then ‘For’ should win, because you’re right that student fees are already paid, [but] they do harm alumni income and attract regulatory attention […] because universities start to become seen as ‘not trustworthy’ sources of income if they can’t even control their internal affairs. It’s not true at all that strikes don’t have any effect just because the money’s already there.”

The National Union of Students, of which KCLSU is a member of, have previously supported the UCU in their choice to strike. KCL Divest Borders has also come out in support of UCU strike action, expressing solidarity with the King’s branch.

What happens now?

The KCLSU vote on whether or not to support the UCU is ongoing, and will close on Sunday, October 24 at 5 pm BST. Students can vote via the link here. The closing of this ballot will be followed by that of UCU members, ending on November 4. Beyond that date, UCU administration and members will decide whether strike action is necessary based on the ballot’s outcome and universities’ willingness to meet union demands. Roar will continue to update you as the situation develops.

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Previously Editor-in-Chief of Roar News. Best Interview, SPANC 2022. Classics with English BA student, graduating Summer 2022. Perpetually caffeinated.

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