I am a first year PhD student at the University of Bath. I decided in my second semester that I wanted to start working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA). Several reasons motivated this – including gaining experience teaching, understand whether teaching was something I enjoyed, and of course some extra money.
I was assigned to a course on international politics and development and started to prepare for teaching with a mixture of nerves and excitement, delivering my first four seminars last week. Then I became aware of the planned strikes by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) over the Universities UK’s proposed changes to staff pensions. I had joined the UCU as a member due to both my belief in the value of unions and the free membership offered to postgraduate students, but I wasn’t sure about how as a student and teacher this strike related to my experience. I was not sure how people in my position fitted into this conversation. The strikes are about pensions – I don’t have a pension. The strikes seemed to be about staff members – as I hold a causal, hourly contract this did not feel like me. Finally, the strikes were withholding teaching and support from students – but I am also a student. I felt confused and wasn’t sure what to do.
I started reading articles and opinion pieces on the strikes and looked at how students were responding. Then I started to get that this was about more than pensions, the proposed changes to pensions were emblematic of the continued erosion of teaching conditions for academic and non-academic staff. Furthermore, the message came through repeatedly that it was those at the bottom of the rung – the GTAs like me – who would fare the worst, starting our academic lives with no prospect of security in old age and the perpetuation and acceptance of poor working conditions exemplified by the proliferation of insecure and casual contracts. This situation contrasts with the ballooning wages of people at the top of the university management system, of particular relevance in Bath where there has been huge anger over the so-called ‘golden goodbye’ offered to vice-chancellor Glynis Breakwell when she agreed to stand down late last year.
So, I have decided to go on strike and it seems many students are with us – the National Union of Students has pledged their support issuing a joint statement with UCU in solidarity. As a GTA the strike will affect me as I won’t receive pay for the seminars I don’t teach on strike days (although there is a local and national UCU hardship fund I can apply to). However, as a PhD student I will also not be offered support by my academic supervisors for my PhD work during strike days – as they are both on strike. My decision to strike was not taken lightly and I understand that this is not an option open to everyone due to either financial or visa restrictions. As a student I understand concerns over lost teaching time, but as a teacher and hopefully future staff member I also understand the importance of job and pension security. I hope the students I teach understand too. Teaching PhD students are in a unique position to see both sides of this conversation. As a teacher and as a student I stand in solidarity with the right of staff to have a secure pension something that I, currently, do not yet possess. I believe in the importance of academia as an open and creative space to address the major challenges facing our world. Inequality and the increasing insecurity and informalisation of work is being lived out within universities and I believe strongly that together with students and other supporters we need to come together to both resist and offer alternatives.
This blog first appeared here