City, University of London’s President presents his stance on the industrial action, as UCU members defend their decision to strike.
Professor Sir Paul Curran is comfortable in his lumpy leather chair, ankle-on-knee, as he tells me very plainly, “It’s about pay. Pay and pensions.”
He’s referring to the upcoming University and College Union (UCU) strikes, to take place over eight consecutive days, starting November 25. City is one of 60 universities across the country to be affected by industrial action. “It’s a factual thing,” he insists, “more than an emotional one.”
Across campus, I watch a lecturer’s eyes grow damp as she explains the moral dilemmas of striking. Seated in a small, bustling café in Exmouth Market, I have to lean over the table to hear her speak. “No one wants to strike,” she says sombrely. “We don’t have a choice.” She’s mulled over the decision for days, grappling with what it means for her students. “What is the alternative?” she asks, and waits. It’s not rhetorical.
Why the UCU strikes are taking place
Like Sir Curran clarified, the reasons for the UCU strikes are twofold: pay and pensions. Loosely, they’re three-, four-, fivefold, with concerns over job security, workload and equality. But current negotiations are binary. They’re also at a national level.
Over the last decade, pay in higher education has dropped by more than 20 per cent in real terms. Recent changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) have resulted in a steep increase in pension contributions, both from universities and their staff. “It’s not sustainable,” the President admits. “People are struggling. The concern is, there’s a small increase now – there could be a bigger one later.”
There are many ways to talk about the impending UCU strikes. While some swing between animated and supportive, others are left with a bitter taste in their mouth, long after debates. The student body, often lacking context, faces the brunt of the immediate impact.
How do we make sense of an issue so divisive? Sir Curran, perhaps wittingly, suggests an approach. “If you think of it as a three-way thing,” he says, palming the air into an invisible shape, “there’s the union – us, senior members of staff and the rest of the academic staff – and the students. If you see it in that context, it all becomes obvious.”
In the café, we bristle every time the door opens and ushers in the cold. “Why do they always call strikes when it’s winter?” asks my union contact. She’s decided to strike, but the prospect of picketing in near minus-degree weather is hardly enticing.
“The myth that anyone is excited to go on strike is inexplicably that: a myth,” she explains. “I’m taking a pay cut for eight straight days. It’d be silly to pretend there won’t be negative effects on students. It’s a difficult decision. I was close to tears when I told my classes.”
The UCU frequently reminds academic staff that they’re not obliged to notify anyone of their strike plans. This strategy is mainly used to prevent employers from enforcing counter-plans to minimise disruption, which inherently undermines the industrial action. Despite this, lecturers are careful to inform their students. My inbox is full of remorseful warnings freeing up my next two weeks. It is highly unlikely that you’ll show up bright-eyed to your 9am only to find the lecture theatre empty.
The timing, for her, feels deeply uncomfortable. This close to the end of the term, students are seeking the most support for impending deadlines. As part of the strike action, staff that choose to participate cannot reschedule lectures, cover for absent colleagues, or even respond to emails.
The blame game
All of this makes it easy to blame lecturers. The sentiment “I get it, but…” is a common non sequitur heard across campus. “I wouldn’t be doing this unless I felt it was absolutely necessary,” she tells me. There’s often an air of apologetic reserve around staff who confess to striking. The conversation itself feels stigmatised, typically followed by an uncomfortable silence as students reel and grumble.
“I don’t think people,” she says, gesturing to herself wryly, “do this for the money.” She tells me she fell into teaching. Falling, in this case, is a fully-funded Oxbridge PhD, teaching initially for experience but quickly loving it, before committing to it. She explains: “In order to provide students with the best education possible, you need staff not on their knees.”
Half the reason she’s choosing to strike is that others can’t. Her overworked, fractional colleagues on vulnerable contracts cannot afford to abandon their offices despite their grievances. The other half is centred around more “admittedly intangible” issues like the gender pay gap, unmanageable workloads, diversity, equality and casualisation.
The “admittedly intangible”: Gender pay gap and the future of education
As of 2018, women at City earned 86p for every £1 that men earned when comparing median hourly wages. According to data from the UCU, BAME academic staff earn 12 to 13 per cent less than white colleagues of the same gender and experience. These issues were listed under the umbrella of the ‘pay’ ballot during the UCU’s referendum for industrial action. 74 per cent of the turnout voted in favour of striking over these concerns. 79 per cent of voters backed action over changes to pensions.
Near the end of our chat, she poses the question, “Who can academics be? At this rate, the only people who can stay in it are the very lucky or the very rich.” The future of higher education is a popular concern amongst staff choosing to strike.
In a quaint pub, another UCU member tells me: “I’m worried we’re in danger of losing sight of what universities should be about – a place to nurture young minds and encourage independence of thought.” Academics will be the first to tell you that knowledge should not be subject to paywalls and fees. For him, and many others, the severe marketisation of education limits the possibility of an open and mutually supportive community of scholars.
For non-union members, the ballots may be black and white, ‘pay’ and pensions, but systemic concerns are plentiful. Before she left, I asked my union contact for her advice to students who want to know more. She responded, characteristically: “Read around the topic.”
City and the President
The President of City flew back from Russia early on Friday, November 15. Later that afternoon, I interviewed him.
I’d spent the week disoriented from the casual accessibility of his office. Partly expecting a last-minute cancellation that would cost me a peak-time ticket and two hours in transit, I was surprised to find that I was, indeed, pencilled in.
Professor Sir Paul Curran is charming in the way that clever, important people are. He is also quick to put things into perspective: “Bear in mind it’s only a few lecturers who are doing it. Out of the 2700 staff members at City, only one in 10 wanted to take action. Not all of them will, but a large number will. The ones who will take action are not spread evenly across the university. But in the majority of cases, everything will go ahead as planned.” Some departments face more staff participating in industrial action than others, so the effect on students will ultimately vary.
Pay, pensions and other concerns
The City President outlines the status of negotiations from the start. “Let’s be clear, there are two separate disputes: pay and the contributions staff make to pensions. There are other things people are genuinely concerned about, understandably. They are concerned about conditions of work, workload, job security, the gender pay gap, casualisation – but the negotiations aren’t about those.” Those other issues, he says, are negotiated locally.
“The employers really care about the gender pay gap. The union really cares about the gender pay gap. There’s a huge amount of work going on – our pay gap is structural. There are too few females all the way through the upper echelons of universities,” he explains and launches into an anecdote. “See, I just came back from Russia, where we wanted to make a statement. Our delegation was half-female, half-male, and it was very powerful. It was reported across Russian media. The first Russia-UK rectors’ forum, all males, fifty-fifty. So.” He grins and brandishes two thumbs-up.
Sir Curran chaired national negotiations on pay with the union for six years, stopping in 2017. “I do a lot with pay,” he tells me. “One of the things for me about higher education is having pay that’s fair, and fair for what people do. The unions are right, pay has gone down since the economic downturn, but what’s important is that academics’ pay is still in a relative position with all other professional groups. Relatively, it’s not changed.”
According to a 2018 audit, he is one of the highest-paid university heads in the country. I ask what he makes of people who would argue this distribution of wealth is unfair. “I get paid — I can show you the figures if you want. I’ve just seen them.” He sifts through his desk to show me an unaudited report to be published at the end of the year.
His salary works out as 5.3 times the median salary for academic staff at City, and 7.3 times the median salary for all staff within the university. “I don’t set my salary obviously, the council does. To those people – have they read the annual report? It might be helpful to note the remuneration report, which gives reasons for my salary.”
Disruption to education
Curran’s role and the role of senior staff at City is to “minimise the disruption to students”. The official Q&A page on industrial action promises to use “alternative methods of providing content and supporting students”, but doesn’t specify what this entails. I ask him.
“Well, it varies. It may be that the work is online, lectures on Moodle. There will be lots of ways,” he says. I press on, asking if he’s planning on hiring temporary staff. “You can’t hire temporary staff to perform the duties of the striking staff. It’s illegal. But every course has visiting lecturers who are on the payroll anyway, but we might be using them for 0.1% of the contract. So, they come in, because you increase the size of their contract. They tend not to be in the union, so you’ve got flexibility in terms of increasing the volume of staff.”
For the President, the maths is simple and indicates futility. “The amount of increase a member of staff will pay to their pension would be lost after striking for two days. Of course, they’re taking a risk because the pension increase is going to happen anyway, and they’ll lose the two days’ pay.”
Telling (half) the story
Statistics are a tricky thing. The ones you use, or more importantly, the ones you omit, determine what kind of story you tell. While union staff emphasise the percentage of members voting for the two distinct reasons behind the UCU strikes (74 per cent for pay, 79 per cent for pensions), the President is careful to point to the average turnout itself: 51 per cent. Similarly, the board responsible for negotiating pay, the Universities and College Employers Association (UCEA), point to the UCU’s “low turnouts and patchy ballot results” as an indication of limited support over the pay dispute.
Sir Curran is preoccupied with broad, comparative figures. He talks about relative pay, the university’s increased contribution to pensions as well as staff’s, the ratio of his pay to his staff compared to higher ratios in the commercial world. He celebrates international statements of gender equality as his own female staff feel disenfranchised enough to seek industrial action. While these are crucial in providing a larger picture, they blur and distort the smaller, human one.
After a pregnant pause, he says, “If you want the emotional bit, the emotional comment, I feel extremely sad that industrial action is being taken against our students. It’s something that no one wished the unions to do, but it’s happening.”
The clock chimes outside. Almost an hour has passed.
Last year, thousands of City students signed a petition demanding tuition reimbursement during the UCU strikes. “It’s never been a possibility,” the President says. “What students want en masse is the education they signed up for. It’s up to the universities to do all they can to give it to them. Students can only claim if universities haven’t done their best.”
Tuition fees are the highest they have ever been, and international students pay copiously more. Anthony Forster, the vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, agreed to make a “mitigating payment” to students who have had classes cancelled. The National Union of Students (NUS) has officially shown support for the UCU strikes. Their National President Zamzam Ibrahim writes: “We know that together, students and workers can and will win, and we look forward to building a better and more just education system together.”
Often left out of the conversation, students face to lose the most. Students, it seems, are caught in the no-man’s-land between union staff and their employers and national negotiation boards. It is the gulf between emotion and logic, between principles and relative statistics. It is a gulf full of smog, hard to navigate.
Whether you support the UCU strikes or believe they are wholly detrimental to your education, this is a very rare situation in which both ends of the spectrum align with the same action. And that is action itself.
If my spontaneous, 45-minute meeting with the most important man in the university is any indication, students have power. If you feel strongly about industrial action, make yourself heard. File a complaint. Contact the Student Centre. Write to the President. Vote in the Students’ Union referendum.
Or, most importantly, keep yourself informed. Listen to executives. Listen to the union staff.
Learn as much as you can; you’ve paid for that right.