On 14th February 2022, UCU members at 44 universities will begin strike action to protect their pensions. Their actions are necessary because, despite the fact that the USS pension fund have agreed that UCU’s alternative financing proposals are implementable, university managers are pressing ahead with deep cuts to the USS pension scheme that will harm UCU members.
Later in February, UCU members will also be taking action in their 4 Fights dispute. This campaign seeks to tackle real terms pay erosion, ever-increasing workloads, rampant casualisation, and inequality across the Higher Education sector. In total across the two disputes, staff at 68 universities will be taking action. On the inequality and workload front, UCU are specifically drawing attention to the following facts:
“The pay gap between Black and white staff is 17%. The disability pay gap is 9%. The mean gender pay gap is 15.1% and at the current rate of change it will not be closed for another 22 years…The recent UCU workload survey found that women, BAME and disabled staff were all disproportionately likely to report that their workload had increased, and the same groups are also disproportionately likely to be on casualised rather than permanent contracts.”
University employers have had ample time and opportunity to reflect on the opposition to their decisions, and to support their workforces rather than seek to worsen their pay, pensions and conditions. In the wake of a pandemic that has put an unprecedented burden on the shoulders of education workers, alongside all workers in all sectors, and with workers facing a cost of living crisis that is unprecedented in recent years, the actions of university managements, backed by the University and Colleges Employers Association, are astonishingly short-sighted.
Especially problematic has been the way that Universities UK has consistently misrepresented the UCU position on pensions, and failed to adequately explain alternative options to employers.
We’re under no illusions about the inequities that continue to structure the university as a site of knowledge production. Thanks to Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly’s book Anti-racist Scholar-activism, we recognise and acknowledge that “the university imposes a range of barriers, challenges, and … forms of backlash upon those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism.” There have been recent allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at Harvard university in the USA, as well as at UK universities, including the University of Glasgow’s geography department. There have also been several published critiques of the way that racialised university structures have shaped the production of knowledge both in general, and specifically in the academic discipline of geography. Dominant societal configurations of power continue to structure academic institutions, and the knowledges that are produced within them.
Yet these inequities have largely not been initiated by the precarious and early career academics who will be worst affected by the issues that the strike opposes. What’s more, and as Joseph-Salisbury and Connelly argue, the university offers a potential space within which anti-racist scholar-activism, in service to communities of resistance, might function. In such circumstances, when a highly-paid managerial fraction within universities seeks to impose worsening conditions of work, pay, and pensions on a racialised, disable-ised, classed and gendered workforce, it becomes an imperative to defend the working conditions that would most benefit the young people in our classrooms in future. The decolonial impulse here is to fight to defend currently existing conditions in universities, and then push further to break down the ongoing structural impediments to the kinds of communal, caring, collaborative modes of work and of knowledge production that stand in the way of a properly decolonial production of knowledge. The impediments to be opposed must include the global divisions of intellectual labour and the building of boundaries between universities and the global communities they serve. Our solidarity with UCU is rooted in what Robin D. G. Kelley calls ‘freedom dreaming’, a political-intellectual practice that has “more to do with imagining a different future than being pissed off about the present” (though we reserve the right to be that, too!).
As teachers, we need to feel confident that encouraging students to pursue university study will mean sending them to spaces where workers and students are treated equitably and with respect. UCU General Secretary Jo Grady has noted what appears to be a “nationally-orchestrated move by employers to bully and intimidate UCU members”. We see the actions of those universities that are imposing harsh penalties, both financial and otherwise, on staff intending to take legally-mandated strike action and action short of a strike. We see those institutions (to date, the worst offenders appear to be Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), City University of London, Manchester Metropolitan University, Newcastle University, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bradford), and we learn lessons about the managerial culture that prevails there. Learning these lessons cannot but shape the advice we give to our students on which universities might offer safe spaces, and which ones less safe spaces, for them to study within.
Decolonising Geography education cannot be confined merely to our own classrooms and curricula. The young people in our classrooms are the university students and workers of the future, and so fighting for pay, pensions and conditions in university now means fighting also for future generations, and for the futures of those we teach. Solidarity, as the geographer Dave Featherstone has noted in his book of the same name, “is indispensable to the activity of radical social and political movements” and can be “a powerful force for reshaping the world in more equal terms.” In Dear Science, Katherine McKittrick writes that part of the task of anti-racist intellectual work is to “get in touch with the materiality of our analytical worlds”. The project of forging relations of solidarity from below, across the borderland between schools, academia and the worlds beyond their walls, immerses us in the materiality of shared experiences of racialisation, gendering, disable-isation, and classing that takes place through educational labour and reminds us that in our diverse contexts, we share the same interests.
In solidarity with UCU, we commit to:
- donating to the UCU fighting fund, and encouraging our union branches to do likewise;
- not putting articles on our website or sharing material via social media during strike days, thus honouring the #digitalboycott;
- Publishing an account of the power of anti-racist, anti-colonial picketing and solidarity action on a non-strike day (a weekend) during the strikes;
- sending a solidarity delegation to a UCU picket line during the strike.
We further call for university managers to accept the demands of the UCU, treat all of their employees with dignity and respect, and stop their attacks on pay, pensions and working conditions.