Staff at the University of Exeter yesterday reached the end of a third week of industrial action over employment conditions.
Strikers marched through the city centre before holding a rally at St. David’s Church which included free teaching sessions and a performance by protest singer Billy Bragg.
This round of industrial action began on 20 February with a two day strike, which was followed last week by a three day strike. This week’s four strike days are to be followed by five strike days next week.
Academic staff were joined on the strike by support staff from across the university as pickets were held at Streatham and St Luke’s campus entrances. Nac Datta, a research information technology officer taking part, said it was “not just a lecturers strike”.
Students have also been occupying university buildings in solidarity with the strikers.
The current strike is the latest chapter in a dispute that has been going on for two years over pay and pensions, including equal pay for female and BAME staff, increasing workloads and the use of casual employment contracts.
Last November an eight day strike was held in protest at the university’s extensive use of zero hours and short term contracts, a practice that is widespread in the sector, as well as pension scheme changes.
The University of Exeter is the sixth most insecure employer in the Russell Group, and 23rd most insecure among 165 UK higher education institutions, with 64% of all academic staff employed on insecure contracts.
And in March 2018 there was significant disruption on campuses across the country in response to pension scheme changes that affected 61 UK higher education institutions.
The University & College Union (UCU) is striking over four issues: pay, employee workloads, use of casual contracts and pensions.
Alongside a pay increase in line with inflation the union wants to close gender and ethnic pay gaps. While the median gender pay gap in the sector is 13.7%, the University of Exeter’s 2019 gender pay gap was 18.6%, more than double the national average of 8.9%.
The union is also seeking the introduction of a 35 hour working week in their employment contracts.
Dr Sharon Strawbridge, Exeter UCU President and senior lecturer in physics, said: “A typical lecturer will be contracted for 37 hours a week, and often works between 50 and 70 hours.
“We have a system where the university’s bottom line is predicated on people working above and beyond their contracted hours.”
To address this issue, the union embarked on “action short of a strike” in November last year, in which staff do not perform unpaid work outside their contracted hours, do not cover for absent colleagues, do not reschedule lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action and do not undertake any voluntary activities.
Casualisation, or use of casual employment contracts, also became a UCU campaign focus last November.
A 2019 survey found that part-time and hourly paid teaching staff perform 45% of their work without pay, while 71% of the survey’s respondents said that they believed their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts.
But it was changes to staff pensions that originally prompted the union to take action in 2018.
UK universities invest in a sector-wide pension scheme, changes to which affect over 400,000 people.
The changes at the centre of the dispute will increase pension contributions while reducing benefits, leaving a typical scheme member £240,000 worse off.
University of Exeter students expressed mixed feelings about the latest round of strikes.
A third year international law student who did not want to be named said: “Because of the strikes we missed out on an entire topic”, but also said he “sympathised with the staff 100%.”
Simone, a second year English student said: “Everything of mine’s been cancelled” but that she was nevertheless attending the rally in support of the strike.
Other students have been taking part in direct action in solidarity with the strikers, including camping on management car parking spaces for two nights in wintery conditions in February and again in March, saying they would vacate them if staff were to receive equal pay.
The group also occupied a lecture theatre overnight.
A spokesperson for the group said: “We were guaranteed no disciplinary action unless we engaged in criminal behaviour.
“However our treatment has changed dramatically from not being allowed food, water or access to toilets for hours to being watched even while we sleep”.
The occupying students left the next day after being threatened with legal action by the university, which said the students had “no mandate for causing disruption”.
UPDATE 9 March 2020:
Another rally planned for the end of the fourth week of the strike on Friday 13 March, in partnership with youth climate crisis campaigners Fridays For Future Exeter, has been cancelled in response to the developing coronavirus pandemic.