By Hallum Cowell
For the last seven days, staff at Cardiff University have been taking industrial action as part of the University and College Union (UCU) Strike action occurring in 60 universities across the country. Lectures are striking over pay and pensions, working hours, inequality, and job insecurity, while also taking part in Action Short of Strike (ASOS) which sees staff working strictly to contract, refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action, and no longer covering for absent colleagues. This ASOS could be ongoing until April 2020 and comes following a UCU ballot in October which saw 77% of members backing strike action in light of ongoing disputes. This is the second time Cardiff University staff have taken part in industrial action in the last two years.
This year’s strike action began on November 25 and is lasting eight days. It has seen some Cardiff University lecturers holding rallies in Alexandra Gardens, forming picket lines outside university buildings, and holding ‘teach-out sessions’ which UCU describes as “free workshops and discussions that take place in the community and are open to staff, students and the public.”
The UCU Strike action began with a well-attended rally on Cathays Park campus where multiple speakers expressed their thoughts on the action whilst offering messages of support and solidarity to UCU members. Speakers included Jo Stevens, Labour candidate for Cardiff Central; Catherine Walsh, Cardiff University lecturer; Dave Reid, a member of Cardiff Trades Council; and various other speakers including other higher education staff members and union representatives. Over the course of the speeches it became clear that amongst staff, students and various unions, there seems to be a big support network for the lecturers who have chosen to go on strike.
Speaking at the initial rally, Jo Stevens expressed: “Our universities are world-leading; therefore, they should be world-leading in how they treat and reward those who work there”, calling on the crowd to “[end] the marketisation of education”.
A following speaker, Shavanah Taj, Vice President of the Wales Trade Union Congress (TUC), asked the crowd “How much recognition do you get from your work?” to which there were many shouts of “not enough”, but dispersed grumblings of “I feel quite satisfied actually” emerged from the crowd too. Dave Reid from the Cardiff Trades Council, also commented on university investments, pointing to the new Centre for Student Life (CSL) being constructed outside of the Students’ Union, saying that the University should not “spend £100 million on vanity projects”, insinuating that money should be directed towards staff members and their wellbeing, instead.
Cardiff University rejects claims that the CSL is a “vanity project”. A spokesperson for the University said: “The [CSL] will allow the University to provide far more joined up pastoral services to students – a unique and important element of Cardiff University’s offer. The [CSL] is being delivered in partnership with the Students’ Union. It is the fruition of a successful and dynamic partnership that the University is proud to enjoy with its student body.”
Gair Rhydd contacted Cardiff University’s Students’ Union about the CSL too but they declined to comment, noting that they have provided a number of statements previously about the CSL.
The strike action has received a mixed response from Cardiff University students. At the opening rally, a group of postgraduate students stood in front of the crowd to express their support for those striking. They emphasised that this strike action should not “create an us and a them” between staff and students but rather they should “stand together in solidarity” because they believe the issues over which lecturers are striking are issues which affect all students, too.
However, not all students are in support of the UCU strike action. One student told Gair Rhydd: “The lecturers already have their degrees whilst as students, we do not. We are already paying the extortionate amount of £9,000 a year and if I’m paying that money, I’m expecting to be taught.
“If staff are having issues and want changes, there must be other ways to approach the situation instead of striking because all they’re doing is putting us students in an unfortunate position; we’re going to end up worse off because of it.”
Labour Students was also in attendance at the opening rally. Gair Rhydd spoke to the society’s President, Leo Holmes, regarding the strikes. He expressed that Labour Students supports the strike action because “every day, we see lecturers and postgraduate research students going above and beyond the call of duty to help their students…This is about workers’ rights.”
Gair Rhydd also contacted the presidents of Cardiff University Students’ Union’s other political party societies for comment. Wiliam Rees, of Plaid Ifanc, stated that they “support the rights of UCU members to strike for better pay, pensions and working conditions” despite the short-term negative impacts for students. James Wallice from the Conservative student group said: “Whilst we understand and accept the reasons behind the strike, we fundamentally disagree in the way UCU members are going about achieving their goals.” Finally, the Liberal Democrats’ student society leader, Matthew Morgan, said: “We understand the frustration of academic staff, who are being forced to accept worse pensions whilst watching university [Vice] Chancellors being paid more and more. We also sympathise with students whose study has been disrupted.”
One student speaker at the rally was Hebe Fletcher, the student who proposed the motion at the Students’ Union’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 21 which called on the SU to support the strike action. Gair Rhydd contacted the SU to enquire about the support the Union has provided to the UCU in light of their new mandate. A Students’ Union spokesperson said: “Following the mandate given to the Students’ Union at the AGM last week, there are a number of ways in which the elected officer team are supporting the UCU strike”, including booking rooms to make banners for strike rallies, offering facilities in the SU building so people can avoid crossing the picket line, and promoting all UCU teach-out sessions on the SU website. They also stated that the SU is continuing to engage in conversations with the UCU and students to identify further support needed throughout the strike action.
Last week, Gair Rhydd spoke to Catherine Walsh, a UCU member representing JOMEC within Cardiff UCU, who is taking part in the strike action. She expressed how the UCU higher education staff members are receiving 20% less pay than they would if their pay had kept up with inflation and that any victories won during last year’s strike action “have slowly been eroded”. She continued: “As far as I know there aren’t even formal negotiations going on” therefore “it’s pretty easy to see it rolling on past eight days…I see no reason to see this ending quickly.” However, last week, the UCU and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), a body which negotiates on behalf of universities, held a meeting to, according to a UCEA statement, “enable dialogue on the issues currently in dispute”.
But what are the specific demands being made by the UCU? They claim they are involved in ‘four fights’ with the higher education system.
Firstly, the dispute surrounding pension contributions arose from changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which allegedly meant that staff could miss out on hundreds of thousands of pounds. According to the UCU, “a typical member will pay around £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement”, but the strikes are also about pay. UCU General Secretary, Jo Grady, stated: “We believe the true decline [in staff wages] is over 20%, but whichever way you look at it staff pay has plummeted. Universities need to immediately take steps to reverse the decade of decline.”
Cardiff University spoke to Gair Rhydd about pay and pensions and a spokesperson said: “Pay is negotiated on a national basis by UCEA on behalf of universities [and] Cardiff University staff have already received a nationally negotiated minimum 1.8% pay uplift backdated to August 2019.” They state this uplift is on top of an annual increment for some staff and given the tough financial environment, the University feels this is fair.
The University spokesperson continued saying, “We all recognise that the period after the financial crash between 2009-10 and 2013-14 was characterised by high inflation and a weak economy” alongside public sector austerity, leading to a squeeze on real pay across the entire UK economy. Ultimately, the University expresses that paying more in pensions or pay is unaffordable for many universities and could lead to “severe cuts in teaching, student services and research”.
UCU members are also unhappy about the alleged casualisation of the higher education sector wherein more and more staff are being employed on low hour or zero-hour contracts. Lecturers are also concerned with their workload which has now become a key issue as part of the strike action, with many lectures arguing that the job they do requires far more hours than they are paid for and is having a real impact on the mental health of staff.
Speaking to Gair Rhydd, a Cardiff University spokesperson said: “Cardiff University does not employ staff on zero hours contracts or their equivalent. We employ some staff on variable hours contracts with these staff submitting time sheets for the hours they have worked…Some work is predictable and long term; other work becomes available for short periods or relates to specific projects which have a prescribed time limit.” Therefore, the University expresses that the terms of contracts are determined by the “nature, type and extent” of the work being undertaken and all employees are made aware of this at their time of employment.
Regarding high workloads, a Cardiff University spokesperson said: “The University takes the welfare of its staff extremely seriously. We are committed to working with all members of the University community, including the recognised trade unions, to ensure the welfare of our staff.”
Finally, UCU members are also striking in response to perceived inequality in higher education; at Cardiff University, the mean gender pay gap was reportedly 21.6% in 2018, according to a report published by the University. Lecturers are not only striking over gender inequality but also ethnic inequalities too.
In response to allegations of gender and ethnic inequality at Cardiff University, a spokesperson for the University told Gair Rhydd, “It is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sex and this includes paying people of one sex less than the other for comparable work…As a University we are committed to gender pay equality.”
Cardiff University states they regularly undertake their own equal pay audits, but accept they still have work to do as do all across the wider higher education sector. The University expresses it is committed to identifying the causes of the pay gap and is working to find solutions, including: encouraging career development and providing development opportunities for individuals affected by the pay gap; creating external benchmarks; and in recruitment, employees undertake unconscious bias training, for example.
In an open letter to staff impacted by the UCU pensions and pay disputes, Universities UK (UUK) and the Universities and Colleges Employers Assoication (UCEA), the bodies who negotiate on behalf of the universities, said that the complexity of the disputes makes a national resolution to lecturers’ demands “very difficult”.
The UUK and UCEA say that to meet the UCU’s demands, unsustainable amounts of money would have to be diverted from other budget areas which could have negative consequences for jobs, course closures and more.
They respect UCU members’ concerns and feel they have taken significant steps to protect both pensions and pay, and feel sorry that UCU has called industrial action because it likely causes “unwelcome disruption to students”.
They hope they can all work together towards “a more constructive dialogue” to reach fair solutions to these disputes.
On November 22, Cardiff University Vice-Chancellor, Colin Riordan, wrote open letters to both staff and students. In his letter to Cardiff University staff, Riordan expressed that he respects the right of staff members to take industrial action and that he will do all he can to “exert [his] influence” in solving these problems, hoping for a solution that meets the needs of both employees and employers. To students, Riordan offered sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused by the strike action and promised he prioritises ensuring disruption to “education and the student experience” is minimised.
The strikes are due to continue this week until Wednesday December 4.