Academics are preparing again to go on strike as part of UCU’s campaign on the Four Fights. As a Labour member and PhD student who is about to take on lecturing for the first time, I am deeply concerned about the direction of travel in university working conditions and will be fully in support of this campaign and the strike action.
The four fights campaign is connecting four related issues in academia that need urgently to be addressed: workload, casualisation, inequality and pay.
The first of the four fights is about workload. Having been a student in higher education for a number of years, I have seen first hand how many hours academics have to put in, using their evenings and weekends to do lesson planning, marking and administration that they are not being paid for. Additionally there are huge pressures to keep publishing articles and books to prove to the university employers that they are providing value for money. The workloads are enormous and exhausting, and many academics have little free time and get burned out just trying to keep up.
Casualisation is second of the Four Fights issues, with universities trying extremely hard to avoid appointing academics on long-term contracts. Currently 68% of staff are on temporary contracts and have no income security, meaning that there is a constant pressure to apply for jobs and move around the country to remain in employment. The reliance on short-term contracts means the universities have more control to hire and fire, and avoid having to pay incremental raises, since longer-term staff are paid more and have more legal rights the longer they are employed.
Inequalities and Pay
As well as workloads and casualisation, the Four Fights campaign is demanding action on inequality. Unequal treatment of women, BAME and disabled staff means that these groups are affected the most by extra workloads and casualised labour. Additionally, the pay gap between Black and white staff is 17%. The disability pay gap is 9%. The mean gender pay gap is 15.1%. This is unacceptable. Action is being taken on this but, at the current rate of change, it will take another 21 years to close these gaps. Pay in general is well below inflation, with lecturers effectively facing a 20% decrease in pay. This is the fourth aspect of the Four Fights, with a demand for pay increases to address the huge losses in pay relative to the cost of living over the last decade.
Students have been very supportive in the past, joining picket lines despite management communications blaming academics for the loss of their learning. This student support is something that the university management is unable to understand. With many students seeing poor career prospects themselves, having to rack up huge student debts and experiencing gig economy conditions, they understand that universities are going the same way. The commodification of education is affecting both students and staff. Good education should be a right for all, not just a product to be consumed.
Poor Management at the University of Brighton
My experience of the University of Brighton management since I started here is extremely poor. They seem to avoid consulting the union as long as possible, antagonising academics for no reason, when they could try to solve issues collaboratively. Money is spent on new shiny buildings, reshuffling organisational structures and massive salaries for senior management. The current Vice Chancellor promised to keep the Eastbourne campus open after the Hastings site was sold off, a promise which has recently been shown to be completely meaningless. Academics have not been thanked for going above and beyond during Covid-19, having to continue to work from unsuitable home offices, having to deal with their own isolation at the same time as having to provide counselling for their students who may have lost loved ones, or may be suffering from severe mental health issues or unable to travel home to see their families. The University of Brighton recently cut their own free in-house childcare service to further exacerbate this unfairness.
A New Fight Over Post-Graduate Teaching
Recently, post-graduate students have been working with the university to find a way to ensure all PhD students get the opportunity to teach. Getting teaching experience is important for PhD students since this hugely improves the possibilities of getting an academic job later on. The university said they were working with PhD students to improve this and guarantee teaching opportunities. However, it was recently revealed that the university would tie this to a 14% pay cut for PhD teachers and also exclude us from being able to have collective bargaining rights.Apparently PhD students are only *assistant* lecturers rather than proper lecturers. I’m not sure how you can be only an assistant lecturer if you are at the front of the lecture hall teaching students on your own. PhD teachers are committed to fighting this further casualisation of some of the most insecure workers in the university sector. PhD researchers get a far lower research stipend to live on that most other countries in Europe, and due to research commitments, only can teach a few hours a week to make up their income.
Support the Strikes
There will be strikes on the dates below, and I encourage everyone to support the UCU in their demands. Pickets are at Falmer, Moulsecoomb and Grand Parade in Brighton every strike day, and it would be fantastic if you could make it to one of these picket lines to show support. Pickets at Eastbourne campus are less frequent due to smaller turnouts.
University of Brighton strike days and dates for pickets at Moulsecoomb, Falmer and City Campus in Brighton:
- Monday 21st February
- Tuesday 22nd February
- Monday 28th February
- Tuesday 1st March
- Wednesday 2nd March
There are also teach-outs every day in the King and Queen pub opposite Grand Parade in Brighton, where alternative lectures and discussions are organised to talk about a range of political and social issues, usually at around 1pm on strike days.
Policy Officer – Eastbourne CLP