This week has seen higher education workers at around 60 institutions take strike action in a fight over pensions, pay, casualisation, and a raft of other demands. Marxist students across the country have been joining the picket lines in solidarity.
Academic staff organised in the UCU are currently in the middle of strike action over pensions and pay. The strike is due to finish on 4th December, but could escalate in the new year if management at Universities UK (UUK) do not meet the union’s demands.
We publish here reports from Marxist Student Federation activists, who have been mobilising students in support of their lecturers. Workers and students: unite and fight!
In recent years, there has been a constant tension between university management and staff, as HE bosses seek to offload austerity onto the backs of workers and students.
This latest strike action by members of the University and College Union (UCU) is officially about the attacks on pensions, alongside other issues, such as pay discrimination against women and ethnic minorities within universities.
In addition, cuts to budgets and an ever-greater marketisation of education has led to increased casualisation within the sector, with a race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions.
From our visits to the picket lines in Manchester, however, it is clear that this fight is part of a larger class struggle – specifically with regards to education.
Speaking to striking staff, there was unanimous agreement that these issues are a small but significant part of a much wider movement in Britain. We are seeing the marketisation and commercialisation of education, as the capitalists do everything they can to squeeze profits out of the working class.
This is a process that will persist beyond this strike, even if management make some concessions on the specific demands being raised. The awareness amongst striking staff of this wider class struggle has been matched by a strong showing of solidarity from students. Large numbers have gathered on the picket lines to show support.
This support from students has been noticeably larger and more organised than during the previous UCU strike in 2018. This reflects the growing radicalisation of students, as the crisis of capitalism deepens, hitting young people the hardest.
Following on from the pickets, students have marched down to the Vice Chancellor’s offices, calling for her resignation and singing trade union songs.
Regardless of whether or not the demands of UCU members are granted as a result of this strike, it is clear that the anger amongst workers and students towards the bosses and their system is only going to grow.
On 28 November, Marxist students spoke to a UCU member at the University of Manchester about their latest strike action. Students and workers, unite and fight!
What is this strike about?
Working hours in academia are untenable. We often work 50-60 hours a week, which is totally unsustainable. More than that, there’s a huge BAME pay gap in academia, and a lot of staff are not treated equally.
We are also still striking over pensions – an issue that has dragged on since 2018 and has still not been solved. Ultimately, we want to stop the marketisation of education. The university sees students – especially foriegn students – as just cash cows, and that’s not what education should be about. The money students pay doesn’t go to teachers, and they should know that.
In general, how do you think the solidarity from students has been?
The message from management has always been to tell the students that staff don’t care about them and their education. However, I’ve seen so many students who are hugely supportive of the strike!
Lots of different student groups have been in solidarity with us and organised marches alongside us. There are, of course, students who cross the picket line. But for the most part it’s been great.
What’s the mood from the strikers? And what’s the next step, once the strike is over?
Despite the Manchester rain, we have had a huge turnout. People are ready to fight!
Representatives are meeting with university management, so hopefully we’ll get our demands. We’re not asking for the moon – just decent treatment. If we don’t get what we want, then we will continue to fight!
The mood on the UCL picket line has been inspiring, with lecturers, administration staff, and librarians saying: enough is enough!
Despite having engaged in a militant four-week strike action just last year, there is clearly a radical mood and an abundance of enthusiasm amongst workers.
Several lecturers have shared stories of abuse and mistreatment by university management. But the anger on the picket lines is universal. This should come as no surprise: HE workers have seen a real wage cut of 20% since 2009. University revenues, meanwhile, have soared through the roof in the same period.
An important part of this struggle is organising student-worker solidarity. This is why the Marxist society has been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with workers on the picket lines – and calling upon all students to do the same.
It is clear that the vast majority of students are in support of the strike, as UCL campus is practically abandoned.
Many UCU members were outraged by the capitulation of the old UCU leadership during the 2018 strike. As a result, they have subsequently elected a left-wing leadership.
The workers are in no mood for a rerun of the last strike, which ended with a dud deal. Instead, they are determined to see this struggle through to the end. And we in the Marxist society will continue to support them until all their demands are met!
UCU members at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have been out on the picket lines every day this week. Activists with the QMUL Marxist society have joined striking staff on the pickets, helping to convince students not to cross the lines and enter the university.
The UCU strike committee have been active in promoting the strike, as well as organising events such as teach-outs and meetings to discuss alternatives to the current broken HE model.
Those attending the Tuesday picket were treated to a visit from Apsana Begum, the left-wing Labour candidate for the nearby Poplar and Limehouse seat. Her message of solidarity was warmly received by staff and students alike.
In addition, UCU general secretary Jo Grady also visited the QMUL picket on Wednesday, giving confidence to those on strike.
The constant hooting of horns in support by passing drivers gives an indication of the broader mood in society. Workers everywhere – including lecturers and other HE staff – have put up with years of attacks on jobs, wages, and conditions.
This UCU strike must be seen as part of a mass movement to bring down the Tories and get in a socialist Labour government. Only then can we begin to reverse the damage done to our education system.
At the University of Glasgow, the Marxist society has played an important role in the support network for the UCU strike. We have had at least two society members stationed on the picket line for each day of the strike, in order to maintain a high visibility for all of the demonstrations.
At the beginning of the week, comrades assisted UCU members in handing out literature to students regarding the strike and its demands. And we have helped to explain the ways in which students can stand in solidarity with the union.
Later in the week, two of our society’s members were invited to give speeches and lead chants on the picket line. This presented the society with an opportunity to contextualise the strike within the broader political and economic situation.
Comrades utilised this platform to discuss how the Tory government is continuing to attack and erode workers’ conditions across all industries and sectors – through casualisation, pay, welfare cuts, and austerity. This message was well received by staff and students on the picket line.
Following the Thursday demonstration, the society set up a stall alongside the picket line in order to talk to students about the strike and about the broader implications of the marketisation of higher education.
We will continue to mobilise students to support the strike and to demand that universities across the UK be put under the control of staff and students, and not governed by the interests of the establishment and the elite.
At the University of Leeds, the Marxist society has played a leading role in organising students to stand in solidarity with their striking lecturers – both on and off the picket line. In the week prior to the strike, we hosted a well-attended Marxist society meeting discussing precarious work and the UCU strike. The Leeds University UCU vice president, Chloe Wallace, was one of the speakers on the panel.
Since the start of the strike, the Marxist society has been the most visible and militant student presence on the picket line. Every day, Marxist society members have been on the pickets, showing support for striking staff.
Additionally, at the strike rallies, Marxist society members have spoken about connecting the conditions staff face to the marketisation of education. In addition, we have emphasised the need for a socialist Labour government to fight these conditions.