The following opinion piece is based on the personal beliefs of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Gown’s editorial team.
BY TIARNÁN Ó MUILLEOIR
Lecturers and support staff at Queen’s are on a one-day strike on the 3rd of December as part of industrial action across Higher Education in the UK. This involves the unions UCU, Unite, and Unison. It is endorsed by NUS-USI and QUBSU.
Over the last four years the real term pay cut for university staff stands at around 13% as a result of low pay increases that are well short of the rate of inflation. At the same time, academics have been required to increase their teaching load, research output, and to have “impact” in the wider economy. Staff workloads have increased as well as class sizes whilst student support is reduced. At Queen’s, counselling services have been out-sourced, redundancies have taken place and departments have closed, while teaching staff have less time to support individual students.
Higher Education is one of the few sectors where productivity is increasing, but not everyone is rewarded. Vice-Chancellors and other senior staff make sure that that they are rewarded for ‘delivering’ these productivity increases and in turn increasing the pay gap between themselves and the lowest paid. While senior managers at QUB are being paid over £100,000 a year, complete with wine allowances and chauffeurs, the lowest paid staff start at £13,500 while new lecturers can start on as little as £27,000 and work a 70 hour week. The era of universities as cosseted ivory towers is over – university workers suffers the same sort of stress, managerial pressure, and wage reductions that workers face across the board. For those of us graduating or heading into work the strike is relevant as it reflects a broader wage battle between employers and workers in the UK. If wages and conditions in densely unionised and relatively well-paid public sectors are undermined, it will embolden a ‘race to the bottom’ in the private sector.
While the current Vice Chancellor at Queen’s supports raising the cap on tuition fees in Northern Ireland, staff at the university continue to support students. They are against such a move and are also in favour of the retention of EMA for secondary students. The lecturers’ union UCU has, in the past, donated docked strike pay to struggling students via the student support fund, a move that managers have attempted to block. This industrial action is not just a selfish attempt to defend sectional workers’ interests, but directly affects the quality of education students receive, and in turn the status of our degrees in the labour market. As the victories of the ‘Tres Cosas’ campaign at the University of London by low-paid workers demonstrates: student and staff solidarity gets the goods.
Practically, students should avoid crossing picket lines by not using library or lab facilities or by going to class. If you need to work on an essay/assignment, work from home. If you have a deadline on Tuesday, speak to lecturers beforehand regarding an extension. You will not be penalised for supporting strike action as long as you have informed staff that this is why you are absent. If you have been threatened with a penalty, get in touch with your SU as soon as possible. Students are welcome to join picket lines – staff will appreciate it and you can bring food, tea, and banners – and to attend the rally in support of the strike at 1pm in Queen’s Student Union.
Trade unions won the gains that we take for granted today in the workplace: pensions, holidays, sick pay – through struggle and the belief that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. We must act now to defend staff’s working conditions and pay, as well as the broader idea of education as a right. Don’t cross the picket lines – staff are fighting for our future!