On 25 and 26 May members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU), which represents academic and academic related staff, will be taking part in two-days of strike action at their universities. UCEA, which represents the employers in negotiations, are already spinning this as a dispute over their pay offer of 1.1%. That university lecturers have, in real terms, taken a 14% pay cut over the last six years is galling. That as a lecturer I stood shoulder to shoulder with students protesting the introduction of fees whilst the employers tried to shut us up with the promise that with the introduction of fees would come fair pay is reason enough to take to the picket lines and chant 'the money's there, where's our share'. But this isn't the main reason I, or many of my colleagues, are giving up two-days' pay, it isn't the reason that many of our students will be joining us in demonstrations next week, and it isn't the reason that the NUS, the national body representing student interests, is hugely supportive of this action. We are striking in defence of our students, now and in the future, who deserve a decent educational experience.
Twenty years ago this week I was revising for my 'A' level exams, hoping to get the grades to study law and philosophy at Keele University. I scraped the four B grades required and come September my Dad was driving me up the M6, all my worldly possessions crammed into the backseat and a 14" portable TV in my lap. In that first-year of University I was lectured criminal law by Professor Jenny McKewan who was writing books and articles on the topic and advising the BBC on the legal content of its shows. My criminal law seminars were led by another Professor who also worked advising the United Nations, for seminars six of us sat in his office while he doled out tea and biscuits and pearls on mens rea in offences against the person. Criminal law wasn't an unusual module, I was taught Kantian ethics around a cherry wood table in the grand Keele Hall by a man generally regarded as the internationally leading light on Kant; constitutional law by a well-published Canadian expert on the subject; legal method and skills by another Professor who I have subsequently seen giving enthralling keynotes at international conferences... the list goes on. Throughout my three-years at Keele I was taught in small groups by respected, published academics. When I stayed to write my thesis I worked alongside these same Professors on world-leading research in feminism and queer theory. My lecturers were given the time and space to publish world-class research and the opportunity to share that passion and expertise with us in small groups, to involve students in their research and to give us the time and attention that meant our student experience was excellent.
A decade after that first journey up the M6 I returned to take up a post as a Teaching Fellow in Law, things were already starting to change. Seminar sizes had more than doubled and whilst the number of students had swelled the number of teaching staff seemed to have remained pretty constant. I currently teach at a post-92 university where I have 25 students in a seminar group and we are being asked to redesign our delivery around groups of 35. However, students who get taught by permanent, full-time staff are the lucky ones. Across the sector universities are relying on hourly-paid and part-time teaching staff, many on 'zero-hours' contracts. Understandably these staff come in for the hours they are paid then leave; these staff don't operate the open door policies that under-pin excellent pastoral support or organise the extra-curricular activities that were part of my undergraduate experience. Staff from historically disadvantaged groups tend to be concentrated in casualised employment which is a contributing factor to the 13% pay gap that exists in Higher Education, at my own institution this rises to 15%. BME staff are also paid less, on average, than their white counterparts, at my own institution its nearly £3,080 less.
I am taking part in industrial action because by asking us to do more for less our employers are ruining the experiences of our students and because I can see the unfairness of my employer employing the majority of men (52%) on permanent, full-time contracts, whilst the majority of women (56.4%) are in casualised employment. I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with colleagues and students in defence of higher education and to make it clear that casualisation and pay inequality are not acceptable.