The Fight for Better Working Conditions and Equal Pay: What do the university strikes mean, and how do they affect student and staff mental health? The members of the University and College Union (UCU) and King’s College London (KCL) UNISON announced that they will take strike action for several days during February and March. The UCU membership is comprised of academics, lecturers, and some administrative services, whereas UNISON consists of staff from HR, finances, student services, libraries, and other professional services. I am a former undergraduate student at KCL and I currently work as a Research Assistant at the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology lab. I have spent the last three weeks engaging with staff and students to understand the reasons behind the strikes and the impact it has had on their mental health. Why are the strikes taking place? UCU members have turned to repeated strike action to protect their pensions since 2018, and this was the primary focus this year as well. UCU members estimate a substantial 35% cut to staff’s guaranteed pensions, on the basis of a valuation conducted in March 2020. Moreover, as of the 22nd of February 2022, Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) have rejected a counterproposal by UCU, and with no clear negotiations in sight, this dispute is likely to escalate. Furthermore, UCU members are also striking for their pay, contracts and working conditions, which is a shared sentiment among members of KCL UNISON. Both unions say that staff wages have not kept up with inflation, amounting to a pay cut of nearly 20% in real terms (for UCU members). In addition, there is approximately a 15% gender pay gap in UK universities rising to 17% among different ethnicities and those with disabilities. Both unions also want to eliminate precarious contracts and increase opportunities for staff career development. KCL have stated that, since these are national matters, they will do their best to influence and secure the best outcome for the staff, but the final decision is not theirs to make. However, they do recognise the issues raised during the strikes, such as workload, equity and equality, and short-term contracts, and continue to work with the unions in a constructive and collaborative way.
How do the staff feel about these strikes?
I spoke to Dr. Ewan McGaughey, who is a Reader in law and has been working at KCL since 2014. He is striking as a member of UCU, mainly for their pensions, and he thinks that pension cuts and increases in employee pension contributions are not justifiable by the university, as the university made a surplus of £36.4 million in the year 2020–21. On asking how conducting the strikes impacted his physical and mental wellbeing, he mentioned that there are always challenges that come with strike action, such as coordinating and resolving conflicts among members, however, discussing these issues and taking a step towards reforming them is even more important. He is also campaigning to build a KCL council that is democratically elected by staff and students which is open to dialogue and good-faith negotiations across the university.
I also spoke to Pablo Paganotto, a member of UNISON and from the Libraries and Collections department. He has been an active member of UNISON since 2013 and is excited about the overwhelming support they have received from both union and staff members to conduct the strikes. He mentioned how high economic inflation, the removal of staff wellbeing days, and the lack of support from the university for staff returning to offices, have made them feel underappreciated and overlooked. These reasons could have contributed to around 89% of UNISON members agreeing to strike action. Pablo also mentioned that it has been difficult to organise a trade union online, but they had very effective and dedicated members who have made the strike possible.
Moreover, Simon Hoar, a newer member of the union, emphasised that the strikes may have a short-term negative impact on the staff, however, the long-term consequences of having fewer wellbeing days and excessive workload poses bigger challenges to staff mental health in future.
How do students feel about these strikes?
According to a poll conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS), 73% of students agree to support the staff. Many students and staff believe that their fights are intertwined; only when staff have a good work environment, can they then provide the best education to students. Therefore, the last day of the UCU strike action, the 2nd of March 2022, coincided with the student strikes organised by the NUS where the students took a stand to campaign for funded, accessible, and democratised education.
It is important to highlight, however, that although historically, the KCL student union (KCLSU) has fully supported strike action, the student body did not opt to support the strikes this year as many students desire greater stability in their education after the pandemic.
The students’ pursuit for improving education became clearer through speaking to them.
I spoke to third-year and fifth-year medical students, and dental trainee students who said that they have had little or no impact on their learning due to the strikes. In addition, the dental trainees mentioned that they have been trying to discuss other concerns with their course organisers. The students I spoke to from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, told me that they were made aware of the strikes by the lecturers, and, with most of their module content being uploaded online, the strikes did not detrimentally impact their learning and mental health.
Indeed, KCL has been focused on minimising the impact of the strikes on students’ learning and teaching, they have kept the campuses and facilities open and available during these times which have been helpful to many.
I also interviewed Abhay, a KCL law master’s student, who missed out on a lot of lectures across different modules. However, he says that this has not had an impact on his emotional wellbeing because he understands the reasons for the strike and empathises with the lecturers. Such feelings were also shared by Callum, a master’s student at Imperial College London, who had to write his exams during the strikes and his lecturer was unavailable to answer queries. With a year to complete an intense course which has a higher tuition fee, master’s students like Abhay and Callum feel that they should be compensated for the time they have lost, and some universities are implementing financial support schemes for the industrial action.
Additionally, I was curious to understand how the impact of this year’s strikes was different from strikes in earlier years, so I spoke to Yasmin Michael who graduated from SOAS University, where the staff had undertaken industrial action in 2018. Her classes were cancelled for 4-weeks, and it was hard for her to make up for the lost lecture content once the lectures began. Moreover, crossing the picket line to go to the library or suitable study spaces had also been quite challenging for her. Her example highlights the importance of resolving the ongoing conflict, and the NUS has launched a petition asking university executives to negotiate with UCU.
What do I think of these strikes?
As a current researcher and a student who graduated from King’s in 2021, I have been able to form a unique perspective on this issue.
Back in 2020, when some of my lectures were cancelled, I too shared Yasmin’s feelings of disheartenment and frustration with the interruptions caused by lecturers; however, upon close reflection and with a better understanding of the reasons behind the strikes, I now support their cause.
Staff members at universities have 12-hour long workdays, work during odd hours and struggle to achieve a good work-life balance. They are passionate about their fields and passing their knowledge to the next generation of lawyers, scientists and professionals, and their efforts must be valued. For a majority of staff members, making the decisions related to undertaking strike action, standing on the picket lines and getting no pay for days can be extremely stressful. We must all remember that staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and it is of grave importance to bring an end to this dispute.
Lastly, I would like to thank all the students and staff members who took the time to speak to me for this blog; their courage and determination is remarkable. This blog is also a testament to how honest and open conversations can help us understand others’ perspectives, and contribute to effective conflict resolution.