The Upcoming Strike Ballots: A Necessary Discussion

Analysis by Sean Mulryan – Current Affairs Editor

Balance is something we all strive for, in life and in every other facet of our being. It grounds us and makes us more aware as a species of the surrounding impacts of life. There cannot be a healthy lifestyle without balance, and similarly, there cannot be a healthy discussion about a matter without some overtures of balance.

Of course, as I’m sure you are all aware of by now, there will be strike ballots encompassing 152 institutions that will be commencing from Monday 18th of October right the way through to Thursday 4th November. The University and College Union, UCU, has stated that the issues wreaking havoc on university staff include a myriad of systemic problems such as: USS pensions and pay, unsafe workloads, casualisation and equality failings. Seven institutions will be balloted on USS issues, a further 83 on pay and working conditions, and another 62 over both USS and pay and working conditions. Queen’s University staff affected will be balloting against both USS and pay & working conditions. The strikes threaten to rage on for the remainder of this term and quite possibly into the beginning of next term unless demands are met.

The general reading audience of The Gown is not lost on me, and the mere notion of further strike action can be and will be deeply unsettling to a number of students. Admittedly, the tumultuous times we currently inhabit do not get made any less chaotic by strike ballots and all that comes with that; however, we must not hide from the fact that there are serious issues that need resolving for university staff.

In March earlier this year, the Universities Superannuation Scheme made deeply troubling conclusions, of which the UCU felt resulted from flawed valuations of the education sector. As a result of the USS report, Universities UK (UUK) voted to cut pensions entitlement, leading to an estimated £15 billion cut, guaranteeing members receive at least a 35% cut. Outrage is not dampened when the disenfranchised read about how CEOs such as Bill Galvin are benefiting from a £30,000 pay increase to a sumptuous £486,410, with a plump little bonus of £212,009 to wash it all down. Seeing people become wealthy at your expense is not something we should expect university staff to stay quiet about.

The UCU demand a 2.5k pay increase, which their general secretary Jo Grady advocates is needed as, “University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.”

As students, it may be difficult to stomach listening to complaints over such issues as pay, when more often than not we find ourselves micromanaging our budgets in order to have enough for rent, food and the occasional beverage. It’s natural, we’ve all thought the same “What are they complaining about, they earn enough”. To act contrarian, I ask you to close your eyes, remove your biases and think about how you would feel if you were asked to do an extraordinary workload, while losing out on thousands, as others appear to be lining their pockets at your disadvantage?

That is exactly what is happening. It is wrong, unfair and unjust. Covid-19 has been a drag on all of us, and it has led to increasing workloads for university staff throughout the UK. You may remember that there were similar strikes in 2019 and early 2020 regarding the same issues. It is a problem that won’t go away, only worsened. According to figures from the UCU, there has been a 20% drop off in pay since 2009, with a serious deluge of inflation-ignorant offers that are simply unsatisfactory.

Image of previous strike action taken by Queen’s and Ulster University staff, Courtesy of Belfast Live 

When one considers the complexities of the problems faced by university staff, it becomes clearer that as students, we must not blame our staff. As Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students aptly stated, “ Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system.” The downfalls of institutions such as the UUK should not be used as ammunition to discredit the extremely credible grievances that are felt by university staff. 

A spokesperson for the UUK stated, “We are disappointed UCU is campaigning for industrial action over reforms to USS…The USS Trustee’s assessment of the scheme’s costs means reforms are needed; no change is not an option. The employers’ reform proposal will prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions. UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result.” 

It may be viewed as a reckoning come too soon, but a reckoning it is, nonetheless. Students are bystanders caught in the blaze of a firefight for what staff feel they deserve. There are no winners here. Students miss out, staff miss out and the heads in control of it all face a dilemma. In effect, it is inarguable that it is time that could be better spent on educating the students who have chosen to pay the ever-exorbitant university fees, rather than further disruption. The blame of this disruption must not fall at the feet of the people who are having their pensions cut, their wages shrunk in the face of increased workload, and who are facing ever growing equality issues. There is a necessary argument, a discussion that needs to take place, and we are all left to feel the consequences should a resolution prove challenging to achieve. 

If you’d like to submit an article sharing your thoughts and feelings on the potential strike action, email them to the Gown at: the.gown@outlook.com

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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