UCU Strike Open Meeting Minutes
Chair: Nisha Phillips, SOAS Students’ Union Co-President Education & Democracy
Dr. Carrie Benjamin - UCU Executive Committee, Fractional Staff Representative, Teaching Fellow & member of Fractionals For Fair Play (FFFP)
Sandy Nicoll, UNISON Secretary
Dimitri Cautain, SOAS Students’ Union Co-President Welfare & Campaigns
Dr. Carrie Benjamin:
Outlined the background of the UCU strike
The proposed changes include changing pensions from being ‘Defined benefit schemes’ (i.e. paying in a certain amount and knowing what you will get upon retirement), to ‘Defined contribution schemes’ - which means you know how much you will put in, but what you get during retirement will be subject to change → UCU has put forward a statistic that academics will lose £10,000 per year on retirement as a result of these changes;
These changes are particularly bad for fractional staff, who already experience under or unemployment, this ‘casualisation’ of their jobs makes particularly insecure and uncertain → pensions are the last form of job security for some of these people, and the proposed changes to pensions erode this last shred of security, reducing the ability to plan for retirement, and in some cases people will not be able to retire
Fractional staff make up 50% of HE staff nationally, and constitute 52.3% of the academic staff here at SOAS. Some get by on £12,000 a year or less.
The context for these changes was outlined - that these changes are all bound up in the neoliberal framework that Universities are operating in. This situation is not limited to the working and employment rights of people who are working right now - it’s also being carried out with students in mind. It’s not in the interests of students to be taught by an increasingly precarious work force. There has been a big trend of staff leaving academic to go into the private sector, because it doesn’t pay to be an academic. This is eroding the quality of teaching. This is in general a much larger issue that needs to be resisted.
I represent UNISON (a trade Union) - although we are not officially taking strike action, this is because most UNISON members are on a different pension scheme (SAUL). However we very much support this strike, because we believe that if these changes go ahead for UCU member, they will then very quickly also change UNISON pension schemes along a similar vein.
This strike is important because this is an attack on education as a whole, and academics are being lost across the board.
It’s also a big question about retirement - they are essentially trying to abolish the ability to retire across the board. Higher Education has been one of the few areas where we have been able to defend this - but it is under very real threat.
UCU are asking everyone to respect the picket line & to not enter University buildings on strike days in solidarity, in order to present a strong, unified message. The stronger the strike, the more likely that Universities UK will listen to demands. If Universities Uk respond to demands, then the strike could be cut short (and less class will be missed) - so please join the strike, and encourage those you know to do the same in solidarity with our academic staff who are being treated unfairly.
Questions from attendees:
As an international student, the strike could potentially make me miss 12 topics, can we ask for money back?
The right people to be requesting this from is Universities UK, as they are the ones who have caused this situation (i.e. eroding working conditions for lecturers) in the first place. One way of requesting this is to contact Directo Valerie Amos, as she sits on the Universities UK board and has some influence there. There is currently no organised group pushing for getting money back - it would be great if there was.
Also, because labour is being withdrawn during strike days, this means the school will be saving money - which will be directed towards a hardship fund. SOAS S.U. there is going to be negotiations around the hardship fund, and who is eligible for it
2. Student rep: what does the strike mean in relation to having access to the library on strike days?
3. ISD student rep: what about not crossing the picket line/ accessing university on picket line day? There are lots of deadlines during strike days.
A picket line is when workers withdraw their labour and stand in front of their workplace and strike. There will be picket lines at every building (as per UCU executive meeting decision today), and the library is considered to fall within the place of work, so going to the library means crossing the picket line and going against the strike. The picket line will be a respectful picket line, so it is up to you if you want to stand in solidarity with UCU members, or to cross it.
During strike days we ask people - both students & staff - not to go into the building at all in solidarity with the strike. The more people who don’t go in, the stronger the strike and the picket line. On non-strike days University buildings are fair game.
UPDATE (from school): deadlines that fall on strike days will be pushed back
4. Head of Syria Society: what about events that are being organised during strike days?
We ask that people don’t use the university buildings during strike days, but it is up to individuals to decide whether or not they cross the picket line.
UCU does however support events that take place outside University buildings on strike days, such as teach-ins.
UCU also supports University buildings being used as much as possible on non-strike days.
**Suggestion was made about using Vernon Square campus, as there will not be a picket line there**
5. Recent teacher: I’m fully in support of this strike - and I’m one of the last people in the country to have a decent pension. This is all going to affect students now when we get older. Being part of the strike means I could miss 42 taught hours - but I still urge students to refuse to cross picket lines, because the strike is very important. However my teachers are breaking the strike, so I’m choosing of my own accord to stand in solidarity with the strike. Is there going to be support for student absence for those whose teachers are still holding class?
The School currently has no action plan on supporting students in this situation - the S.U. has requested to have an open forum with Universities UK. We can’t give direct assurances at the moment, but we are working to try and get some promised support and we will communicate this as it develops.
6. Social Anthropology student: this seems like an extremely regressive protest, particularly when you are suggesting specifically not to reschedule classes. The primary victim of this strike is the student. Why can’t classes be rescheduled?
7. SOAS is a multicultural place; many international students (particularly Postgrads) are paying huge fees & big loans that we will return home to. The Students’ Union needs to represent us too.
Teachers also don’t want students to be losing out on their education, and also do not want students to be dealing with huge loans. Teachers are not the ones charging fees - in fact teachers think the fees are a scandal, in particular the international hierarchy of fees!!
But teachers will be losing £10,000 a year in retirement (from pensions) as a result of these proposed changes - it’s the same people responsible for the international fees as are responsible for the pension changes. There should be a unified struggled on both of these fronts against the body that makes these decisions.
This marks a devaluation of education - by making this change to pensions, Universities UK are saying that your education is worth less i.e. degree fees are not worth having secure, stable staff to deliver your education. This frustration and anger should be directed at Universities UK who have created this situation, not at teaching staff.
We ask that classes are not rescheduled, because when you reschedule a class then the teacher will have to put in the work to do this. Striking is all about withdrawing labour, and so rescheduling classes is equivalent to expecting teachers to do unpaid labour.
8. Will the strike be effective?
This issue needs to be tackled head on, and UCU have decided to do this with a strike. There can be no guarantees about effectiveness, but if we do not strike then the changes will most likely just go ahead. The more support we have from students, the stronger the strike will be. This is why it’s so important to show solidarity, particularly in the beginning - then the more likely it is to be resolved quicker.
The Higher Education sector earned £1.7 billion surplus last year. This is not a problem with having no money; it’s an ideological choice about where and to whom that money should go.
9. How do we put the maximum amount of pressure on Universities UK in order to increase the likelihood that they will not go ahead with the proposed changes?
Contact Universities UK and vent your anger & frustration to them. Also, Director Valerie Amos sits on the board of Universities UK, so you can contact her about this too.
10. On the UCU website it says it has asked members of UCU to strike, but not all UCU members (teachers) are choosing to strike, and not all teachers are members. Does this mean not everyone will be striking?
Yes, but we ask everyone to join the strike in solidarity. Also, it is still possible for teachers to join UCU - we urge you to talk to your teachers about this.
11. Withholding fees of second term perhaps could have been a tactic - I would have been happy to do that. Why was this not suggested as a tactic?
There was no way to know about the strike action until now & there was a chance that it wouldn’t have gone through - so it was past the point when witholding fees would have been possible.
Some faculties have known and let students know, but it was never guaranteed that the strike would go ahead. In the end there was record turn out to vote from UCU members, but the outcome to strike was very hard to predict. Which is why it has all been quite last minute.
12. For many students with specific learning disabilities, missing class hours mean multiple hours spent trying to make that time up - this has a significant impact for these students. Have you thought of ways of mitigating the impact of the strike on students with specific learning disabilities & who have difficult with english?
We are having a meeting with the school (including Director Valerie Amos & Education Pro-Director Debprah Johnston) on friday. There will also be members from Student Advice & Wellbeing present, so these issues will be raised and we will discuss ways we can provide support specific to these students.
13. What are the times of the picket line?
7 AM to the evening.
14. There hasn’t been any internal communication about the strike until now - why is that?
We haven’t known that it was definitely going to happen until now. Some lecturers have been talking about it to students, some haven’t. If your lecturer hasn’t brought it up, perhaps you could bring it up with them.
The school also have been quite quiet on the issue. The S.U. is doing its best to improve communication as much as possible, and will have a stall outside the JCR for students who would like to talk to us. Our office is also open, and you can email if you have any questions.
15. What about UCU tutors who can’t go on strike i.e. for money reasons?
Thanks to the mobilisation of Carrie, the Union has put together a strike fund for teachers who are fractional & facing difficulty, in order to help them join the strike. This is the most support that UCU has ever given.
There will be a meeting 7th Feb 16:00 in LLT to talk about student mobilizing around the strike
There will be a meeting with Valerie and Deborah Johnston on friday