Knowledge is necessary but power is absolutely essential for protecting workers

Mary Senior argues an alliance of staff and students is the surest foundation for protecting higher education.

It’s two years since the pandemic hit, and university staff and students shifted online overnight. In the higher education sector, we’ve experienced more than our fair share of challenges, from Covid, health and safety, and from recalcitrant employers determined to use the pandemic and the economic climate to attack workers’ terms and conditions.

In lifting the remainder of Covid restrictions in England, Johnson appears to think he can signal the end of the pandemic. Indeed, our own Scottish Government seems set on following the same path. UCU has taken a safety-first approach from the start and been clear you cannot gamble with people’s lives. It is far from evident that the virus has dissipated, and high levels of the virus remain in the community. This is not to mention the unanswered questions on vaccine wane, the uncertainty of new variants emerging, and thousands of forgotten people suffering ‘long Covid’.

Given recent outbreaks on university campuses, we’ll continue to demand safety first, and that sensible protections remain in place, including face coverings, enhanced ventilation and physical distancing – keeping students and staff safe. Union health and safety reps really stepped up to the plate, and will continue to do so in the face of bosses and governments prioritising profits over safety and wellbeing.

And our movement’s input into the Scottish and UK-wide Covid inquiries is going to be critical in ensuring workers’ voices are heard, there is no cover up, and that lessons are truly learned for the future. Not least, we need to ensure the decade of austerity is exposed for its decimation of lifeline public services and essential infrastructure, leaving services struggling before the pandemic hit. Coronavirus has not been a leveller: it has magnified the inequalities in society today. We have some investing and rebuilding to do, to better support our vital public services.

In the university sector, we cannot underestimate the impact lockdown and the shift to online and hybrid working has had on a creaking education system, where workloads were already unsustainable. A UCU Scotland survey of university staff last summer revealed over three quarters of respondents’ workloads increased over the pandemic, many of them to dangerously high levels. Over a fifth of academics work an extra two days a week on top of their contracted hours. The unsafe workloads and precarity in the university sector mean that up to half of all staff are showing signs of depression and almost a third are feeling emotionally drained by work every day.

This anger over unsafe workloads, and the frustration over insecure contracts, unequal pay, and the fact that university workers’ pay has lost over 25% of its real terms value since 2009, makes for a workforce that feels demotivated, undervalued and furious with university bosses. These frustrations have been compounded by the brutal attacks on university workers’ pensions.

The anger and disenchantment of workers, with staff at breaking point, has been channelled through UCU’s statutory industrial action balloting and campaigning on pensions, pay and working conditions, in the two UK-wide disputes that, unfortunately but necessarily, rumble on.

UCU has proved once again that it is one of only a handful of unions able to mobilise members on a UK-wide scale in a strike ballot and win a strong mandate for action. This has been secured through dedicated reps and activists, and their sheer hard work and systematic approaches to engaging with members. Contacting them over email, Teams calls, text messaging and face-to-face where possible. This, complemented by UK-wide campaigns where thousands of members joined Zoom sessions with our general secretary, Jo Grady, was able to harness the frustration, concern and anger from workers at the treatment being meted out by university bosses. Bosses are on six figure salaries and perks, far removed from the reality of workers struggling with unsafe workloads, or hourly paid temporary contracts. Bosses are simply not listening to staff over the issue of pensions, instead just pushing through brutal cuts to workers’ deferred pay, which are resulting in workers on average having a pension 35% lower in retirement.

The importance of building alliances of people in struggles is key, transcending individual disputes and the pandemic. For UCU representing academic and professional support staff in universities our natural allies are the students. Working together with the National Union of Students (NUS) in the recent ‘Rally for Education’, where hundreds of staff and students protested outside the Scottish Parliament, helped to cement our relationship and co-dependence. Staff and students are stuck with a broken education system which is leaving students in poverty and fails to value staff. The rally hammered home the message that we must change a sector that leaves students homeless, relying on food banks or needing to drop out of their courses. The same failing system is exploiting staff, attacking their pensions, undervaluing their work, and leaving gaping equality pay gaps.

The cost-of-living crisis is simply compounding these grievances, and only bolstering workers’ resolve to get a better deal for university staff and students. As the union comes away from ten days of strike action in February and early March, to regroup and consider our next steps, nothing is off the table. With the prospect of further strike days, continuing action short of strike, including the possibility of marking boycotts and more, UCU will be considering the most effective levers to win change. This means inspiring more workers to join us, continuing to work with the NUS and students’ associations – our working conditions are students’ learning conditions – and demonstrating to employers that there is a better, fairer way for higher education that values those delivering the learning, research and student support.

Mary Senior is the University and College Union (UCU)’s Scotland official