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‘It can’t go on’: students join lecturers on the picket line

Early on Thursday morning, striking staff and supportive students braved wind, rain and hailstones to picket at the University of Manchester, demanding an end to unequal pay, unfair workloads, rising pension costs and the casualisation of work.

Outside the Samuel Alexander building, Spanish lecturers Adriana Bausells and Rubén Peinado said the precariousness of pay and contracts had become the norm for their department, increasing their workloads and stymieing prospects for promotion.

Peinado, 34, is on his fourth fixed-term contract in four years, which has seriously affected his income and economic security. “Every year I’m offered a contract renewal for only 10 months ‘to satisfy a temporary need in the department’. I get my last paycheck in June, then nothing until the end of September.

“How do you say to your landlord that you have no job over the summer so can’t pay rent for two months? I go back to Spain, come back in September, then a few months I’ll get a letter saying I’m no longer needed and the process starts again. It makes you feel really, really bad.” Bausells, 33, said she also had to move home three times in the last five years for this reason.

“When it comes to teaching it makes it so hard to innovate, because you don’t know if you’ll see these students next year. Last year was my first time seeing students graduate and the feeling was amazing – I’ve seen them from first year through their final year. It’s a brilliant but rare opportunity nowadays.”

Postdoc Rebecca said the systemic casualisation of work and pay marginalised people from less privileged backgrounds. “It’s driving lots of people out of academia who can’t afford to be on temporary contracts and constantly looking for the next job, which is really bad for diversity.”

She will be back on the job market next year looking for permanent lectureships that she’s unlikely to find. “I’ve spent 10 years training for a career in academia, but I’ve seen so many colleagues who couldn’t find permanent work have to leave the sector altogether.”

Taking shelter by the Whitworth Building, students directed frustration towards university management. For third-year philosophy and politics student Orlando Phipps, this was his third consecutive term having lectures cancelled because of industrial action. “I’m here out of concern for my lecturers – they don’t take these decisions lightly – and to stand up to the financialization of higher education.”

History student Frank Roche, 21, added that the system was unsustainable. “I know somebody who works part-time at [burger chain] Archie’s – if he was full-time he’d be making more than some of our full-time lecturers. It’s just a ridiculous situation. They’re constantly overworked, underpaid and suffering mentally. It can’t go on.”

Several staff members cited that by increasing pension costs, the Universities Superannuation Scheme was ignoring the recommendations of two joint expert panels that deemed it unnecessary.

English and American studies professor Jackie Stacey said younger colleagues wouldn’t have a pension they could live on when they retire under the changes. She also found her workload unmanageable. “The volume of work is way too high and impossible to do in the hours that we’re paid for. University management has literally no idea what our day-to-day lives are like.”

Monica Pearl, lecturer in 20th century American literature, added that work-life balance was non-existent. “For some of us, we’re on the picket lines in the morning but afterwards we might finally get to go to the dentist or get our eyes examined. I just couldn’t do those things during the semester, because I’m working all the time.”

Daniela Caselli and John McAuliffe have both taught at the university for about 15 years and have seen a shift toward investing in the regeneration of buildings, development of new parts of the campus and overseas expansion, rather than in staff, teaching and research.

“We should work 37.5 hours a week, but it’s actually more like 60 or 70,” Caselli said. “We want to do our job well, but I feel constantly put in a position where I perform not at my best.”

English literature lecturer Chris Vardy said the only way to secure a more permanent role was to do research on the side, which you’re not paid for, and “compounds the problem of workload more and more as I have to work far beyond the hours I’m paid for”.

As the picket came to an end and with the rain finally letting up, Pearl added, “None of us wants to be on strike. It’s the last resort. It’s against our ethos as teachers. We want to teach – but we’re broken by the work conditions before us.”

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We share many of the concerns expressed by our staff, including members of UCU, on working conditions and are taking steps to address these. We are committed, for example, to closing the gender pay gap and we are one of the first UK higher education institutions to analyse and report our ethnicity pay gap.

“In view of the progress in the national negotiations with UCU and employers on the issues staff are concerned about, it had been our hope that further action would not be taken. We are surprised and very disappointed that the action is taking place, while all sides are still involved in discussions to resolve the issues, and indeed UCU has fed back positively on these discussions.

“While we recognise the rights of UCU members to take industrial action, our priority remains to minimise any impact on our students.”


Source: The Guardian

March 18, 2020

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