The British Academic Strike is a Crucial Struggle that Must Be Won: Part II, Universities

by Benjamin Studebaker

The University and College Union (UCU)–Britain’s trade union for academics–has gone on strike. The strike is about the University Superannuation Scheme (USS)’s decision to switch academics from “defined benefit” pension plans to “defined contribution” plans. As a PhD student at Cambridge I write this piece at home, having skipped a couple events I really wanted to go to today, because this strike is so important, both to academia and to the cause of working people more generally. My hope is that I can explain the strike to those who don’t know much about it and defend it to any who doubt its necessity.

There are three broad reasons this strike is important:

  1. The contribution it makes to defending the right of all working people to retire comfortably.
  2. The contribution it makes to defending the quality and standing of British universities.
  3. The contribution it makes to defending and extending the capacity of working people in western democracies to protect their interests effectively through collective bargaining.

My intention is to do a piece on each one. This is Part II, which focuses on British universities.

Defending British Universities

As British readers know, tuition fees at UK universities have gone up a lot in the last two decades. They were first introduced by Tony Blair’s government in 1998 at just £1,000. Then the Blair government hiked them again to £3,000 in 2006. In 2010, David Cameron’s coalition government tripled them to over £9,000.

Fee supporters argue for the system on the grounds that it helps British universities raise more money with which to make themselves globally competitive. But this doesn’t seem to translate into better wages or working conditions for academic staff. More than half of university teaching is now done by people on “atypical” temporary contracts. Here are the percentages at a number of noteworthy British research universities, as compiled by The Guardian:

In the course of my PhD, I myself do a significant amount of undergraduate teaching for Cambridge. I’m not on a fixed long-term contract, and might comprise part of the 13.4%, if that figure includes casual workers employed by the colleges. For a typical hour of undergraduate supervising, I am paid £33.80. But for each of those hours I have to mark two student papers, each of around 2,000 words. I try to give my students very thorough comments because I care about them, and because of this it takes me about an hour to mark a paper. This means that in practice that £33.80 covers about three hours of my life, and my “real” hourly wage is more like £11.26. Suppose I attempted to live entirely on supervision money, with no outside support. How much would I need to work to earn enough to live on?

In the United States, Bernie Sanders supporters argue that a living wage is $15 an hour (about £10.73). A person who works 40 hours a week at $15 per hour for 48 weeks per year (plus 4 weeks paid vacation) would earn $31,200. That’s £22,326. What would I need to do to earn £22,326?

I can’t work 48 weeks per year, because Cambridge only has three terms, each of which is just 8 weeks long. I only have 24 weeks to earn my annual pay. I also don’t get any weeks of paid vacation–I am only paid for the hours I supervise.

£22,326 divided by 24 is £930.25. £930.25 divided by £33.80 is 27.5 supervisions. Let’s round that up to 28. Each of those 28 supervisions would require me to spend a total of three hours of my life, so to make a living wage as a Cambridge supervisor I’d have to work 84 hours per week. There’s no way I could possibly manage that, so in practice I’d have to spend much less time on each student paper. If I only spent half hour, I’d get it down to 56. But that’s still more than a person should have to work in a week, and at this point my students are seriously disadvantaged by my need to speed through their papers.

Now, in practice a lot of temporary academic staff are better off than this, because research and teaching fellows are paid some kind of base wage. Glassdoor estimates that average salary for teaching fellows in the UK is £32,277, which is not terrible. But because we PhD students can be made to work for virtually nothing, more and more teaching is handed off to us and fewer and fewer of us can find good jobs once we finish our theses. PhD students are shunted into a CV arms race, attempting to stuff their resumes with as many publications as possible to persuade someone, anyone, that we deserve one of these scarce salaried positions. And the fellows themselves have to play a similar game in pursuit of the even smaller number of coveted permanent lectureships.

Those who think the situation would improve if tuition fees were even higher have not been paying attention to the American case. In the US, PhD students don’t just handle some of the periphery workload, they often do the lecturing and run the courses. In the meantime the academic job market has collapsed. When I was trying to decide where to do my PhD, I visited a couple Ivy League schools, each of which told us they couldn’t really be sure there would be jobs for us when we finished. Some of the PhDs who had started 5-10 years before us had gotten jobs. But the schools clearly thought their students would do better than they had done, and that the trajectory would leave us in an even worse position.

Where is the tuition money going? Mostly to management and construction. In the British case, capital spending between 2014 and 2018 is expected to total £17 billion, a 60% increase over the prior period. The USS pension deficit–which some allege is little more than an accounting trick–is estimated to be just £6 billion. Capital spending alone in a 4 year period is three times that amount. Indeed, the size of the increase itself–just over £10 billion–is nearly double. Nevermind Vice Chancellors’ salaries and other managerial excesses. The British university system clearly could afford to hire a decent number of academics to permanent posts and pay those academics decent wages and decent pensions. It simply chooses not to do so.

Over time, this makes the profession less and less attractive, and it makes it harder and harder for those of us who stick with it to find the time to do great teaching. Every hour I spend marking a student paper is one less hour I can spend in the PhD rat race going after a cushy fellowship. It’s downright professionally foolish of me to teach more than I need to, or to do it better than I absolutely must. I do it anyway because I love it, and I can afford to do things I love that might not be in my long-term financial interest because I have a supportive and adequately affluent family to fall back on if things go awry.

That’s the kind of system we’re building–one in which university teaching is mostly done reluctantly and under financial duress, with a few romantic idiots like me here and there. The students of the UK–both the British and international students–are terrifically bright and tremendously hard working. Many of them are good people who care deeply about making the world a better place. They deserve a more committed staff with the time and financial security to prioritise their interests. They won’t get it if the profession is slowly reduced to precarity, with academics taking on teaching only in a desperate bid to tread financial water. When students come to university they’ll find lots of shiny new buildings, but little inside to give them meaning. I love the British university system–it’s made me who I am today–but it won’t stay great if we don’t defend it and reverse the deterioration that has already taken place.

This is just one important reason to support the UCU strike. Part I has already come out and Part III will follow.

Other entries in this series: