UCU have voted to strike against the University, with action taking place between the 1st and 3rd of December Wikimedia Commons

In his latest email to the entire student body, Graham Virgo wrote that, concerning the UCU strikes, he is ‘extremely concerned at the potential disruption’ to our education. He made a note of the ‘20 extremely difficult months’ we’ve been through, and then made clear that students should act ‘as normal’, in a University that will operate ‘as usual’ during ‘the days affected’.

Graham Virgo is right: we have had three years of disruption through the 2019 strikes and then Covid-19. But, crucially, so have Cambridge’s teaching staff. The twenty difficult months many of us spent struggling through online supervisions, financial disruption, and ill-health were just as bad for those teaching us. For every Zoom seminar, supervision, and lecture, our lecturers have also had to familiarise themselves with new technology, and have been expected to deliver the same quality of teaching as if nothing has changed. They have struggled through the pandemic with just as little clarity from management about what to do next.

“Virgo and his fellow members of university management attempt to pit students against staff”

These working conditions are, however, just one symptom of the wider diseased system of higher education. The 2019 UCU strikes were a response to issues that haven’t gone away over the past year, but have instead been exacerbated – issues that include casualisation and insecure contracts, pay gaps for BME and female staff, unsustainable workloads, and cuts to pensions. If we seek a post-Covid return to business ‘as usual’ or ‘as normal’, we seek a world in which academics are still underpaid, overworked, and exploited by the University and its colleges.

Moreover, many of those going on strike are students themselves. Our postgraduate friends and peers who teach or research for the university are treated as easy labour and it is in the interest of the student body to campaign for a better future for them. A PhD supervisor from Royal Holloway, Aimée Lê, recently wrote about her experience lecturing while living in a tent: ’students had every expectation I was receiving a salary for my work. I think that is what students everywhere assume: that we are lecturers on proper contracts. I did tell them that wasn’t the case, but I thought telling them I was living outside was a step too far.’ This is a situation far more common than one would hope, but Lê’s experience shows the utterly unlivable conditions in which many academics are forced to work whilst not on fixed, salaried contracts. The UCU’s ’Justice4College Supervisors’ Campaign fights for the recognition of this exact issue, which Virgo’s reference to ‘strong feelings on issues of pay and pensions’ clearly doesn’t do justice to. Of course it is stressful as a student to miss contact hours – but, if academics aren’t treated fairly, then what model of higher education are we really working towards?

“If academics aren’t treated fairly, then what model of higher education are we really working towards?”

By writing that he is ‘extremely concerned’ about disruption, Virgo and his fellow members of university management attempt to pit students against staff, and fail to take any accountability for their own role in creating the conditions that are forcing disruption. Crucially, however, they also refuse to take accountability for the power they have to stop this disruption: that is, the power which university management has to respond to the demands of UCU, and to prevent strike action.

Industrial action has been shown to work in Cambridge already. After the 2019/2020 strike, the University agreed to: review 700 fixed-term contracts (both academic-related and assistant staff), and to identify those who could be transferred from fixed-term to open-ended roles. University management also agreed to consider the transfer of hourly paid teachers to employment contracts, where these workers have been teaching and lecturing on a regular basis for some time (an estimated 500 people were affected by this change).


Mountain View

Clare College removes trans flag flown by students

The last round of strikes also brought Cambridge UCU – the only UCU branch in the UK not recognised by its University – much closer to recognition. With recognition, university employees will finally have a collective voice in critical decisions at the university level; without it, employees do not have a full say in their own working lives. Change has been effected, but there is a long way yet to go.

As described in UCU’s latest branding message, ‘we’re at breaking point’. The higher education system is entirely unsustainable for its staff, and if they don’t strike now, things will only get worse. A future that continues ‘as normal’ or ‘as usual’ is one where life as an academic is increasingly financially unstable, insecure, and inaccessible to marginalised students and staff. The supervisors and lecturers you care for most will be unable to keep teaching. Your peers who want to continue into academia will be dissuaded. The higher education system as a whole will continue to crumble. To strike is to cause momentary disruption; to not strike is to cause a lifetime of it.