Photos from the UCU strikesKatie Kasperson with permission for Varsity

Overworked and underappreciated academics are returning to another year, this time as overworked and underappreciated examiners. The tight marking deadlines, made worse by institutional higher-ups no doubt breathing down the necks of staff, feels like a disturbing flashback to mock exam season at my secondary school. In both cases, it seems as if there was a fatal disconnect between those rushing to complete their marking and the distant managers starting the countdown.

As Varsity reported, despite a professed “extensive consultation” with faculties, the UCU was still seeking “an urgent meeting” with the university to discuss the marking deadline. Something doesn’t add up.

The issue of working conditions and retention is heartbreakingly similar to that of the maintained school sector, where both sets of workers have taken real time pay cuts when compared to inflation and are working more hours. The situation is further exacerbated by the frequency of inflexible contracts rampant in the higher education industry. According to the 2021 UCU workload survey, staff at UK universities who are paid hourly (either on a zero or minimum hours contract) are working an average of 62.75 hours a week, 23% more than those on permanent contracts.

This only worsens at Oxbridge with the supervision system. It seems absurd that at a university where the Vice-Chancellor earned £526,000 in 2022 alone, supervisors are still often only being paid hourly for supervisions, not for any prep or marking time. Put in these quantitative terms, we can see the extent of the value deficit. Even if this salary might not in itself cover the necessary pay rises and additional hiring, it still tells staff, and tells us, that the leadership are worth that much more.

“We are paying a premium into a system that is slowly crumbling around us”

What could all this amount to? The same education crisis that the UK’s schoolchildren are currently suffering through, where professionals cannot be trained, recruited or retained within an environment that refuses to value them. This of course all feeds back to the ridiculously unsustainable funding arrangement that is tuition fees – which universities themselves know to be unsustainable. All of which disproportionately affects humanities subjects, of course.

We are paying a premium into a system that is slowly crumbling around us. This may be less literal than our secondary school counterparts, with fewer instances of dangerous concrete that could actually fall down around them. Nevertheless, when it comes to the rights of workers, there are parallels that need to be addressed before thousands of them feel like they have to leave the job they love (before they are kicked out of it, that is). In both sectors, the trust of staff needs rebuilding just as much as the classrooms.

“They are about an investment in the value of their staff as human beings”

My mum was one of the 40,000 teachers that left the profession before retirement age between 2021 and 2022, in spite of having been a dedicated social sciences teacher for nearly 20 years. Every year it was more students and less support, more admin and less pay. Behind the scenes, teachers of higher education are suffering in the same way. I am hyper-conscious of this at every supervision, as well as increasingly angry at the institutions who might soon be making them decide if their job is worth the burn out.

Acknowledging this problem doesn’t delegitimize the struggle of current finalists desperately waiting for results so they can start the job search. As a current second year, I can only imagine how frustrating that is. But this only circles back to the issue at hand. If UK universities, just like the Department of Education, took the time and money to show staff their worth, then this would protect the worth of students too. And I do sincerely believe that such staff, like teachers in our schools, wouldn’t risk our studies (and pay deductions!) if they didn’t feel like they really, truly, had to.


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As I remember watching my mum feel more and more disrespected by the education system, I am reminded that these two campaigns are about more than pay investments. They are about an investment in the value of their staff as human beings.

It’s time for universities to shift money away from the grossly overpaid vice-chancellors and invest it in their staff's – and therefore students’ – wellbeing. Just like it’s time for the government to pay up and invest in teachers for the long term.

If the systems surrounding an individual fail to reflect their value, then of course they won’t stick around in that system. In the immortal words of Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, they won’t “s[i]t on their arse and [do] nothing”. They will leave.