The United Kingdom’s higher education sector is in a temporary state of turmoil with a 48-hour strike that resulted from a rejected contract offer — but what does the strike and the possibility of future action mean for those looking for a job in education?
HOW THE STRIKE HAPPENED
Members of the University and College Union have enacted a 48-hour strike action that involved up to 60,000 workers in universities across the UK. The move came as a result of stagnant pay and an offer to give a 1.1% pay rise that UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt called an “insult”:
“A 1.1 per cent pay offer is an insult to hardworking staff, especially in light of the 5 per cent pay rise vice-chancellors have enjoyed while holding down staff pay.”
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association responded by saying that the 1.1% rise was both “fair and final,” and Paul Curran, the vice president of City University London and also the chair of UCEA, said that the offer was, “at, and for some beyond, a limit of affordability for higher education institutions and the very best offer that will be available this year.”
In response, the UCU organized a two-day walkout for May 25-26 that has thrown a wrench in the works of closing out the academic year. UCU, along with other unions, have suggested a broader strike action beginning in August if their demands aren’t met.
WHAT THE STRIKE MEANS NOW
The mantra from the UCEA’s member institutions is that the strike had “no to low” impact on the operation of campuses. Despite fears that examinations and clearing may be disrupted by the walkout, the effects on the student experience appeared to be mild. The vast majority of teaching and exams have concluded throughout the UK, so there were few exceptions.
Until a resolution is reached, UCU members will be ‘working to contract,’ which means that they will abide strictly by the terms set in their hiring documents. They will not engage in overtime work, additional duties, or remain flexible to cover the duties of coworkers. Depending on members’ commitment, that may include non-compensated items traditionally understood to be part of the job, such as writing recommendations for and being consulted by students.
All sides, from UCEA to UCU and its supporters, will continue to try to push for an acceptable compromise. Right now, UCEA is refusing to budge, and the UCU appears prepared for a lengthy process of actions.
HOW THE STRIKE AFFECTS STUDENTS
Students, however, may have something to worry about as the negotiations play out. Further actions could cause disruptions to activities that have yet to take place, such as graduation ceremonies and open days, but the real changes would come with possible actions for Autumn. Strikers have proposed a boycott of setting and marking student working with the opening of the Autumn term, which could potentially make academic life difficult for Britain’s students.
Courses that depend heavily on highly-structured progressions of learning — maths, science, engineering — would be the hardest hit if lecturers refuse to mark student work. Disciplines that lend themselves less to self-study could find both their students and teachers in difficult places after a resolution, with those effects (academic, labour-intensive, and otherwise) rippling throughout the entire academic year.
Students who work outside of school may be especially hurt by such disruptions. Inconsistencies with academics make it that much more difficult to accommodate part-time jobs.
WHAT THE STRIKE MEANS FOR JOB SEEKERS
Those looking to get a job within the higher education sector may need to exercise patience. As budget problems and industrial actions play out, hiring tends to slow, if not freeze entirely.
Budgets are delicate things, and hiring decisions impact budgets in significant ways. Even a 1.1% increase in personnel costs mean limitations on new hires without an influx of more money.
A lack of stability in the university-workforce relationship tends to push those making decisions about hiring volume to favour short-term solutions. Fixed-term or non-renewable contracts become more appealing without the baggage of permanent positions. The number of fixed-term contracts in UK universities has risen markedly over the last decade; that number will be fueled, in part, by perpetual labour actions.
This presents a bittersweet situation for job seekers — it opens up the ‘entry level’ lecturing market to those looking to break in, but it also drives down compensation for those workers and undermines long-term stability.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Unions want stable, well-compensated employment; institutions want their needs met by a workforce they can afford and plan around. That takes a long while to figure out, and in the end, usually neither party is happy.
The situation in the United Kingdom’s higher education sector mirrors that of large school districts in the United States. The financial crisis and the resulting Great Recession halted teacher pay rises and hiring almost uniformly nationwide; only recently have states and cities returned their education budgets to pre-recession levels.
Aside from districts like Chicago Public Schools, few have had to resort to strikes. The argument that years of flat pay ran counter to government commitments to boost schools proved compelling despite generating resistance from cash-strapped administrators, and now unions have largely begun to win contract improvements.
The Cameron government’s recent commitments to improving higher education may force concessions from universities. As UCU’s Sally Hunt argues, retaining Britain’s vaunted place in the international higher education community depends on workers. Hunt said:
“It’s time to invest properly in the teachers, researchers and administrators who are the backbone of our universities.
“Industrial action which impacts on students is never taken lightly, but members feel that they have been left with no alternative.
“If the employers wish to see a swift end to this dispute, and avoid further disruption, they need to come back to the table with a much-improved offer.”
Students and job seekers in the education sector should pay close attention to developments in negotiations, as the effects will be felt not only from primary schools to PhDs, but for budget- and goal-setting in years to come.