On Monday 24th February, it happened, again. The UCU launched fourteen days of strike action. Last term from Monday 25th November- Wednesday 4th December, round one of strike action commenced, with a vote held by the Students Union concluding ‘70% of eligible voters, voted to support UCU’s strike action and its stance in its entirety’. This forms a consensus that the student body is on the side of the UCU, which means our anger is turned to Paul Layzell and the college.
Striking lecturers do not enjoy, I assume, missing work to stand outside in the cold and rain, moping about with no students to pester, losing their income- so what provokes this action? The strikes are protesting on issues regarding contributors to pension schemes, with the UCU calling for the university (employer) and not the lecturers (employees), to cover the deficit. The second disagreement is on pay and working conditions, the UCU believes pay has dropped for academic staff by 17% in real wages since 2009, based on findings from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). The working conditions element of the dispute focus on gender and BAME pay gap, increased casualisation of staff contracts and increased workloads. These are the exact same reasons lecturers walked out in November 2019, according to the UCU ‘the employers only agreed to properly discuss casualisation, workload and inequality arising from our decision to strike in November 2019. While their offer does represent progress, it is not enough, and they have now said their latest proposal is final – just as they did last May!’
Now, for a university which boasts of its history entrenched in women’s liberation, proclaiming through a very expensive four floor library, that Emily Wilding Davison herself attended the college (for one term until she could no longer afford the fees), the issues surrounding pay disparity is surely a huge embarrassment for this institution. Paul Layzell, what is going on? Well, we all know of Paul’s comments made back in November 2017 in a staff meeting, stating women have a “natural tendency to not have a go and put themselves in for promotion”. Furthermore, his comments came after figures released by Times Higher Education (THE) revealed the university has a 10% gender pay gap for full-time professors, making it the seventh worst in the country.
This questions the integrity of Mr Layzell to effectively address the strike action, how can we trust Layzell to support the rights of women and BAME academics if he can make these claims? As stated by the UCU, the universities had deemed their latest proposal their final after the November batch of strikes, however on the 5th March the UCU realised their latest update stating ‘It’s clear that most employers have changed their position since our last dispute over USS. They are now willing to agree with us on a range of issues. The two reports of the Joint Expert Panel have vindicated our position.’ This is a glimmer of hope for students and striking staff, with more talks taking place on the 6th March, could this be the last we see of the strikes?
As we prepare for the last five days of strikes, the progress of negotiations are imperative to how the next academic year will look. As a third year student who lost most of first year and now third year to strikes, based on the findings by the UCU and many conversations with striking lecturers, there is no short term fix. If the college and the UCU do not reach agreement by the end of this strike period, there can certainly be expectations that next academic year will look the same. The issues raised by lecturers and the UCU are not to be overlooked, and shake to the core the integrity of many high ranking universities, including Royal Holloway. What message is a university giving to its students if it cannot facilitate an environment of equality within its staff? How am I expected to trust the university on matters such as sexual harassment and discrimination if the university does not address pay disparity between its staff, and the structural, institutionalized, inequality at the centre of this disparity? Paul Layzell, it is time for change; and no matter the individual stances on strike action, the calls for change being made by the UCU are valid, and do deserve student support. Students and lecturers make this institution what it is, and we can shape it to how we see fit.
Everyone hopes there is an end to this strike action, but if conditions are not met, there must be student outcry against the injustices faced by academics at this institution, and the lack of reparations by the university to students missing an invaluable, expensive, education.
Written by Sarah Tennent