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Strikes – again? Why they’re still happening and why it’s important that we support them

Features editor Naz Karadede on the ongoing strike action at King’s and its impacts and implications for both staff and students. 

The most common reactions that students have had to hearing that another round of strike action is taking place have been “Oh no, not again” or “We pay so much money to the university and we can’t even get a proper education” or “The strikes have achieved nothing – we are the ones being targeted and the university is not affected”. Whilst, as an international student, I can see where the concern is coming from (particularly when it comes to the astronomical fees we have to pay), I never shared the view that the causes behind the strikes are a staff issue and that their sole purpose is to disrupt our education. On the contrary, I think that their aim is to improve the education that we are receiving. Namely, we can’t expect our quality of education when our professors and teaching staff are not being paid enough.

Speaking to some professors and hearing their perspectives on the strikes has strengthened my view. If you take the time to ask your lecturers why they’re striking and what they hope to achieve, you actually find that the reasons that they are striking for are not at all too inconceivable. Fair pay, no reduction in pensions, and an end to systemic inequality can hardly be classified as outrageous demands. And in the long run, they will help us. But before I explain my reasoning as to why we, as students, should be supporting the strikes, I want to delve more into the reasons why the strikes are continuing on from last year, especially for students who are new to the university.

 

Why the strikes are (still) happening

For those of you are new to King’s, this is the second year in a row that the strikes are taking place. They started last year after it was declared that professors and staff part of the USS pension scheme would receive a cut to their pensions based on a valuation conducted by Universities UK (UUK) in March 2020 – when the global economy was in crisis.

“We are being told we must be significantly poorer in retirement based on a ridiculous valuation of the USS pension scheme” and the totally inappropriate application of UK pension law to USS as if individual universities were private businesses,” a professor in the Department of Political Economy, who is striking again this year, outlined. As a result, the UCU (University and College Union) and the Unison union announced that they would be holding industrial action to protest the pension cuts.

The UUK then voted that it would be enforcing the pension cuts in April 2022, which is the main cause of the strikes taking place on the 24th, the 25th and the 30th of November this year. The cuts would see staff lose at least 35% from their retirement income, with some losing up to 41%.

A Liberal Arts professor who I interviewed at the picket line on the first day of strikes showed me a very informative graph displaying just how substantial the pension cuts are. “This is how much my pensions were worth under the previous scheme,” he explained, pointing at a graph showing £20,380, “and this is how much they will be worth under the new scheme,” he added, pointing at another graph showing £12,499.

Whilst the pension cuts acted as a catalyst for the strikes, they are not the only cause. Systemic inequality and discrimination in pay, the casualisation (or randomisation) of working contracts, the increase in working hours, and the decrease in rates of pay, which is making it harder for professors and staff to sustain themselves during the cost-of-living crisis, are just a few more in a long list of causes.

I won’t get into all the specifics and statistics now but some of the most shocking statistics include a 17.1% racial pay gap, a 18.9% gender pay gap, and a 25% fall in salaries against inflation since 2009 across most UK universities. More information and statistics can be found on the UCU website, alongside a long list of FAQs for why the strikes are happening.

 

Ok but why strike? Is there no other way?

This is something I initially questioned too. Why strike? Isn’t it just impacting students? Why disrupt our education? Is there no other way to solve these issues?

Unfortunately, there seems to be no other way. Universities UK, with whom the UCU has been negotiating with, have been pretty inflexible in their response to the strikes because of the UK government’s unwillingness to change its application of the pension law and the 2020 valuation of the pension schemes. “The sad fact is that we can only get Universities UK to engage with us if we force Vice Chancellors to engage with us,” the professor from the DPE whom I interviewed explained. “And the only way we can do that is for students to be made to suffer, because student are the ones who pay the fees, and the Office for Students is the part of government that is paying attention.”

However, we must remember that none of our professors actually want our education to be disrupted. Their only aim is to get the pay that they deserve and the only feasible way to do that right now is by striking. Strikes for them mean days off work and no pay, so in a way, they have to sacrifice even more of their pay to campaign for fair and equal pay.

“None of us want teaching to stop, and we all go on strike with a heavy heart insofar as it damages student learning,” the professor added. “And it isn’t just down to UCU and the lecturers: if Universities UK engaged with us properly and compromised, we wouldn’t need to go on strike. They are gambling that students will blame lecturers and put pressure on us accordingly. Just remember that we are the ones who will not be getting paid – not our bosses. So who is really using who, here?”

 

What has King’s College London’s response been?

On the whole, I have received mixed accounts on the university’s response to the strikes. Yes, the situation has not improved at all since last year (hence the continuation of the strikes), and in fact, it has gotten worse due to rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. But this can’t entirely be blamed on the university. Rather, we need to look at the decisions of Universities UK (the collective group of UK universities that King’s is a part of) and the USS pension scheme to realise that this is a structural issue that extends beyond the scope the university. Some professors have even argued that King’s has dealt reasonably well with the issue because it has not coerced or pressurised its staff and professors to forego their right to strike.

However, it must be noted that because of its position in Universities UK, King’s is still, to an extent, complicit in the issue. Indeed, the Liberal Arts professor who I interviewed at the strikes explained that whilst King’s’ income has increased by roughly 3.8% since 2019, its staff costs, namely, the cost of having employees, including wages and salaries, have decreased by 1.3%. So, while we cannot blame the entire issue on King’s, we cannot completely rid it of accountability either.

 

Why we, as students (and yes, even international ones) should be supporting the strikes

Its not difficult to see why the strikes are not just a staff issue and why we, as students, can systemically benefit from their success. The intuitive fact is that anyone with even a remote sense of moral responsibility would support fair and equal pay for their lecturers and staff, without whom they would not be able to receive a proper university education. However, on a more pragmatic level, staff working conditions and pay have a direct impact on our education too.

Dr. Ewan McCaughey, President of King’s’ branch of the UCU, whom I also had the opportunity to interview at the picket lines, summarised the connection really well: “staff working conditions are student learning conditions. Students are paying more and more for tuition fees but less and less is going to teaching and staff pay and the workplace”. As a result, less and less is also going to improving or even sustaining the quality of education that we are receiving.

“Home and EU students pay a lot of fees, but international students pay even more fees; the question is: where do these fees go? You might think that they go to the pockets of those who work at King’s. But students might be disappointed to learn that this is actually not the case,” another history professor whom I interviewed added. “I don’t have the time to improve my modules, and to do everything I want to do, because I’m too busy trying to survive.”

Talking about the race and gender pay gap, he also added: “it is disappointing for students who believe that universities should represent equality and equity in general”. And he has a very valid point here. How many of us would have still chosen to study at King’s knowing that it is contributing to systemic inequalities? Then why aren’t we doing anything to stop it now?

Some students I met at the strikes have shared the same view as well. “I, as an international student, pay a lot of fees, and having barely any of that go to professors, who are the ones teaching us and providing us with a service, is wrong,” outlined Nguyen, a third-year history student who was present at the picket line to support the strike. “Staff should have fair and equal working conditions; they shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can afford to feed themselves. And GTAs should get the support they need. They shouldn’t be forced into teaching roles that they don’t want,” Darla, a second-year film studies student added.

Whilst the situation is looking bleak, I must say that the only way any progress is going to be made is with our (students’) help and support. Because we are the ones paying fees, the university (and the UUK) will be more likely to change their policies if we voice our discontent. The only way we can do that is by showing our solidarity with the strikes. And supporting the strikes does not even require an excessive amount of effort. Some of the ways we can show our support is by being present at the picket lines or by simply not coming into university on strike days.

That’s where the paradox lies: if we want the strikes to end, we need to support them. But on a more personal level, considering how much effort they put into teaching and helping us, fair and equal pay and sufficient pensions for the future are the least that university staff and lecturers deserve.

 

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