‘Systematically underpaid’: arts courses across UK grind to a halt amid nation’s biggest university strike in history

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Arts and humanities higher education courses across the UK will come to a standstill this week for the country’s biggest-ever university strike. University lecturers and staff across the country’s entire tertiary education sector are opting to walk out in protest against their pay and working conditions.

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) strikes will last for three days, and take place today, tomorrow and on 30 November. More than two-and-a-half million students are estimated to be affected overall, with the country’s most prestigious arts courses due to be impacted.

The strikes comes amid a wave of union activity across the country, and could be a turning point nationwide for zero-hour contract and other temporary workers, which UK universities nationwide have increasingly relied upon. Many artists teach on higher education courses as a way to supplement their income, and could stand to benefit from improved contracts if the strikes are successful.

University staff are observing “industrial action short of strike”, or ASOS, from Wednesday 23 November onwards. An ASOS strike means lecturers will refuse to undertake any work that isn’t actively stipulated in their contracts.

Lotte Crawford, an art historian and a senior lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth, is one of the many arts lecturers to go on strike today. She said in a tweet: “I am paid under £23,000 before tax per annum as a senior lecturer. I was really proud of the enormity of the workload I’d navigated through the pandemic, until a lecturer said it sounded like a neoliberal nightmare, and of course she was right…I am tired, please strike today and join us.”

The photographic artist Lewis Bush, the former course leader of the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography course at London College of Communication, part of the University of the Arts London, called on arts lecturers who cannot physically picket to still strike. He said in a tweet: “A digital picket is still a picket. Don’t teach online, don’t provide old lecture recordings, don’t reply to emails or post about work.”

Paul Halliday, course leader on the MA photography course at Goldsmiths, University of London, also voiced his support for the strikes. “Looks like we’re reaching the stage where politics in the UK has moved so far right that common sense concepts like ‘job security’ and ‘living wages’, are now presented as unrealistically far-left ideologies,” he said in a tweet.

The strikes come after UCU members overwhelmingly voted in favour of industrial action last month in two national ballots. The union is calling for a “meaningful” pay rise to deal with the cost of living crisis and action to end the use of “insecure” contracts. Prices are rising at their fastest rate for 41 years, with the official inflation rate at 11.1%.

On pay, the UCU has demanded a pay rise of inflation of 12%, to end the use of zero hours and temporary contracts, and for action to tackle “excessive workloads” that result in pressure to take on “unpaid work”.

The median salary of a UK lecturer is £38,700. A teaching assistant’s median wage is £31,700 while a senior lecturer earns on average £49,600.

In response, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) say the pay increase that picketing strikers are seeking would “put jobs at risk”. Some 30% of universities are already in deficit and are struggling to remain solvent, with many universities increasingly reliant on the increased fees that foreign students are required to pay.

The union says a third of academic staff are on temporary contracts, and claim university workers have faced a 35% real terms cut to pay behind inflation since the financial crisis, while being given an offer of just 2.5%. Better-paid lecturers are also striking in solidarity with administrators, cleaners, library, security and catering workers, many of whom earn the minimum wage while living on zero hour contracts. The strikes come as one of the UK’s leading vice-chancellors admitted that British universities have been “systematically underpaying” staff for “many years”.

Michael Spence, president of University College London, said at an event hosted by Times Higher Education: “We’ve balanced the books by hugely increasing numbers of international students, and by, in many institutions, not investing in adequate repairs and maintenance and, as a system, systematically underpaying our staff.” Recruiting at current pay levels, particularly for middle-band earners, was “not sustainable”, Spence said. His comments came shortly after it emerged that one in three Russell Group vice-chancellors were given a pay rise during the pandemic.

The first set of accounts to cover an entire pandemic period show that in 2020-21, ten vice-chancellors from 24 of the UK’s most prestigious universities took home an increased salary in 2019-20, while half of students in England are facing money problems as the cost of living soars, according to the research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

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