Amid the flurry of white fur hoods adorning Cambridge’s cobbled streets and the stream of smiles and gowns on our social media, it’s easy to forget only 30% of these crowds have formally graduated. For the other 70%, it’s a cosplay occasion.

This won’t change until negotiations between the UCU and UCEA are returned to and fair terms for university employees are finally decided upon. The UCU’s campaign for fair pay and working conditions, fixed contracts, pension schemes and the end of casualisation and pay gaps has been ongoing since 2018.

Five years on and the situation has reached breaking point. Employees in higher education have seen a real-terms pay cut of 25% since 2008, and the recent pay offer by the UCEA (who decide national university wages) is insultingly low, ranging between 5 to 8%. The Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) we’re seeing across the country is the result of decreased government investment, over-work combined with underpayment, and the cherry on top is a disrespectfully inept payment body.

I sat down with three striking academics at Cambridge to ask whether the University is doing enough. I wanted to find out how deep-rooted the problems are that face higher education nationally and most importantly, how can we change things?

All three are members of the UCU partaking in the marking boycott. I was immediately struck by their common love for teaching and academia, despite the conditions surrounding their work. Nick Guyatt, Professor of North American History, tutor, fellow and supervisor, harked back to his own memories – giving people the “incredible privilege of the system of supervisions” and remembering the “crazed respect” he had for his own teachers. For Max Long, History and HPS supervisor, examiner and lecturer, his job allows him to “do what you love the most”. It’s this passion that has pushed academics to continue working, despite wages essentially being frozen for the last ten years, and now sharply falling under inflation and a rise in the cost of living.

“Add in the extra work that all three supervisors take as a given, let’s optimistically say 3 hours extra per student and their pay disgracefully sits at under £5 an hour”

The over-work of our academics and teachers is extreme. Max’s own dedication gives an example. For any topic the supervisor hasn’t done a PhD in, like the students they teach they must do the reading. Max explains as if obvious that “of course I’d put in at least 3–4 days reading per topic … probably a minimum of 5 hours per supervision … and then you’ve got to mark [the essays.]” The average payment of a Cambridge supervisor, considering most supervisions are 1:2, equates to £19.63 per student per hour. Add in the extra work that all three supervisors take as a given, let’s optimistically say 3 hours extra per student and their pay disgracefully sits at under £5 an hour. And that’s without a contract: no pension, sick leave or maternity pay.

Striking academics protesting outside of Great St. Mary's ChurchDaniel Hilton

Although college teaching is separate from University employment, the dismissive attitude towards staff is pervasive. Nick noted the disdain towards UCU members that some colleagues hold – a sense that striking is “vulgar”, unseemly. Funnily enough, these tended to be the wealthier, more privileged academics, not those struggling to pay a ridiculously inflated mortgage. My third interviewee confirmed this: they requested to remain anonymous, and from the unsympathetic behaviour they revealed from their co-workers, I can understand why. They told me that it was no coincidence that “those who spoke out against their lower paid peers at Regent House included multi-millionaires, aristocrats, masters and senior tutors”. It was “devastating” to see them attack their “most vulnerable colleagues”.

As if the under-appreciation of the intensive work our academics do isn’t enough, the employers face a payment body, the UCEA, who Nick generously describes as “at best, misleading” and who my third academic pinpoints as “a conglomerate of bureaucrats and fat cats” with “no accountability to anyone in academia”. When the acting vice-chancellor of Cambridge made his statement urging for the UCEA to restart negotiations, they made a press-release claiming they had Cambridge’s support. Here we have a case of “misleading”.

“The UCEA have displayed a dangerous disregard for student and staff’s efforts, well-being and the integrity of higher education”

Striking academics protest near Sidgewick siteDaniel Hilton

But at their worst, the UCEA have displayed a dangerous disregard for student and staff’s efforts, well-being and the integrity of higher education. Their ridiculously low pay offer is “contemptuous of the work of academics”, says Nick, concluding that their silence has led to “students becoming hostages of the situation”. This sadly reflects upon the state of the British university system – once “renowned and respected”, all agree that the leadership shown at the top is entirely unsustainable if we want our institutions to regain the reputable quality we know they are capable of.

For Cambridge students, graduation and the full force of the marking boycott came earlier than for others in the country. And although this is a national problem, it does seem that in Cambridge, with our rigorous additional supervision system, and with a cost of living that consistently ranks scarily close to London, there could and should be local solutions provided by the University. When I asked Nick about the supplement given to Cambridge staff to alleviate hardships, he laughed. A singular payment, which was taxed: “the cheapest possible way of throwing something at people”. With the huge monetary potential that we’ve all seen sitting in colleges, Cambridge are “in a situation where financially they could treat their staff much better”.


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In the face of the “outrageously disrespectful” treatment of the UCEA, Nick expected more: “I’d assumed we’d work night and day to reach some kind of resolution”. Instead, the icing came in a frosty format – quite literally – when after very little communication from the University to staff, students donned their caps for a “fake graduation”, a real life version of the “nothing to see here” meme.

Of course, senior management cannot solve a national problem on their own, but covering it up with ceremonies, fur and smiles is not in any way a solution. The academics I interviewed were desperate for creative solutions such as moving academics to the next pay grade, or giving permanent jobs to precariously employed young researchers. Max pointed out that if we want to extend the wider representation and diversity we are seeing in student cohorts into the university as a whole, job security needs to be a priority. The University allowing the UCEA to get away with doing quite “literally nothing” is, according to my third interviewee, both “lamentable and risible”.

“Of course, senior management cannot solve a national problem on their own, but covering it up with ceremonies, fur and smiles is not in any way a solution”

All three agree that the situation stems from the dire state of higher education across the country. We have a “super system”, that management seem “hell bent on destroying”. As academics are seeing their pay punitively deducted for striking, and the UCEA’s silence prolongs the strained cost of living all are feeling, the need for change is more prevalent than ever. Perhaps a change in leadership: governmental or in the UCEA. My third academic, who falls under both student and teacher, expressed their own disappointment even with the UCU itself. The final brunt has fallen on students, soon to also enter this deflated job market, and the “lowest paid, least equipped to respond, and having suffered the most from cost of living and Covid”.

Striking academics protestingDaniel Hilton

There is hope for change. Despite this exhausting, seemingly endless battle, Max is confident: “I’ve seen a lot of things won [by the UCU.]” The more people that understand that higher education is currently an “exploitative system”, the closer we all are to fair wages, graduation, and a return to the top quality, renowned education that we know British universities can give.

NOTE: On 4 July, the UCEA released a statement agreeing to return to negotiations. But, as staff across the country continue to have pay deducted for striking, it is more important than ever to apply pressure on the UCEA for a just and respectful agreement.