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UCU Strikes 2021 - Frequently Asked Questions

Find out more about the UCU's decision to strike and what it means for you.

We've collected the questions students submitted on our online form and provided answers below, as well as a guide to some of the language used, and some broader FAQs. If you have any other questions, please submit them on our online form. Please also make sure to attend our Emergency General Meeting on Thursday 25th November at 6pm, which you will find an invite to in your latest email from Keele SU Student Voice.

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Lots of the language used to describe the UCU's Industrial Action may seem confusing, and so here is a guide to some of the key parts of this action.

UCU is the University and College Union, a trade union made up primarily of professional academics. Many, but not all, of the academic staff at Keele are members of the UCU, and so will be striking from the 1st-3rd December.

Industrial Action is a collective term for both the strikes and action short of striking, and just refers to any action by the UCU that impacts the work they do.

Strikes are the most severe form of industrial action, and involve lecturers refusing to work for the days they go on strike. They lose 100% of their pay for each day they go on strike.

Action Short of Striking (ASoS) is less severe than striking, and involves 'working to contract' which means workers will only fulfil the responsibilities of their contracts. The UCU will be taking action short of striking from December 2021 until May 2022. This means they will not learn any new technology needed to deliver teaching, will not respond to emails outside of contracted hours (mostly 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday), will not cover for fellow lecturers who are unwell or unable to teach, and will not commit to rearranging lectures missed due to strikes (they may rearrange lectures missed outside of those strike days). They will also not pick up any new duties requested by university management.

Picket Lines are where striking workers stand to raise awareness of the strike and why it is taking place. There will be a picket line at the front entrance of the university campus. The UCU have asked us to inform students they are welcome to join staff on the picket line to help demonstrate to the university the importance of the strike action.

UUK is Universities UK, the body representing universities that is supposed to negotiate with the UCU on issues relating to working conditions such as pensions. It is their refusal to negotiate further with the UCU on meaningful reforms that has led the UCU to vote to strike.

Higher Education refers to the level of education that takes place at university, including undergraduate and postgraduate study.

Casualisation is the process of using fixed-term contracts rather than permanent job contracts for staff, which allows the university to avoid long-term commitment to staff but reduces job security and makes it harder to secure worker's rights. This occurs outside of Higher Education as well; if you've had a zero hours contract at a workplace, this is also caused by casualisation.

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FAQs:

Why are the UCU striking?

Over the last 10-15 years, there have been disputes between universities and academic staff over cuts to pensions, as well as a broader trend within Higher Education towards casualisation that leaves academics with little job security and makes it harder to build up pensions. In addition, academic staff at lecturers have seen real-terms pay cuts (when salaries fail to rise in line with inflation) of 17% since 2010, with some positions seeing a fall of 40%. Pension cuts have been implemented by UUK that the UCU feels are unfair, requiring staff to give up more of their pay to go towards their pensions while receiving smaller pensions than expected. As negotiations for this have faltered, the UCU balloted its members on taking industrial action. At Keele, this ballot was successful, leading to the industrial action taking place.

The UCU have described the reasons for striking as the 'Four Fights', which you can learn more about here.

Will this affect my studies?

If your lectures, seminars or labs are conducted by staff who are members of the UCU, you are unlikely to have these sessions take place between the 1st-3rd December. Please note that you will not be assessed on teaching that is cancelled due to strikes and your assessments will be modified appropriately. The university is also not allowed to use previously recorded lectures in place of striking lecturers. Your school will be able to provide more specific information if you have any further questions.

What will my lecturers be doing while they are striking?

Between 8am-10am each day of the strikes, there will be a picket line taking place at the front entrance to campus. In addition, a number of alternative lectures will be arranged; this allows students to continue learning during the strikes, but this will not be on content required by the university. The SU may be supporting with this and other actions that are not yet confirmed, depending on the result of our EGM on Thursday at 6pm.

What is the Students' Union doing?

We are holding an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) on Thursday 25th November at 6pm, where will be be determining the SU's stance on the industrial action. Regardless of the result of this vote, your Elected Officers are committed to ensuring students suffer as little negative impact as possible. We have also released a statement that details our response to the decision to strike, which can also be seen in a video format. As this statement explains, we are in regular contact with both Keele UCU and university management. If you would like us to raise a question or concern to either group, you can submit these on our online form; we will raise these anonymously. Some of the feedback from these is shown below.

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The following questions were taken to the UCU at our Drop-In Session on Wednesday, and they have provided the answers below.

Why do you need to strike, when it has such an impact on students?

The UCU absolutely understands why students are angry and recognises that these strike days will be disruptive for students. We also recognise that the Action Short of Strike will slow down a lot of the work done by academic staff at the university. However, many of the SU's own members are PhD students who teach and are UCU members who will be striking, because they are affected by these pension cuts and increased casualisation. The decision to take industrial action has not been taken lightly - it is a last resort to show the collective power of the union to the university. The decisions taken by the University and by UUK (the national body that decides pension plans on behalf of universities) are incredibly damaging to the future of staff both in terms of finances and personal wellbeing.
Our working conditions are your learning conditions, and we want to be able to do our best to help you learn. Without showing the university they need to work with us, this will end up having a negative affect on your university experience in the long term.

I feel that anyone who feels unfairly treated has the right to strike. It may not feel like there is that big of an impact afterwards but it absolutely guarantees that the movement will get attention.

Yay! This is true, and it’s worth bearing in mind that pension contributions are deferred pay; by cutting these pensions it leads to lecturers working for free. If you have cuts to pensions as have been taking place and are being proposed, this helps prevents academics from being able to do things such as find somewhere to affordably rent. Casualisation also happens to students as well, who will find job contracts that are far less secure and pay far less than higher job stability would provide. This has detrimental effects for their mental health, and the same is true for academics at the moment, and this is why these actions need to take place.

It’s fair that lecturers deserve better pay/pensions, but completely wrong that students should miss out on potentially vital parts of their degree, especially as they are paying over £9,000 per year to be taught!

It is unfair that students will miss out on vital teaching, but bear in mind this missed teaching will not be assessed. These decisions are forced by people who are making decisions that affect students. The people in charge of the universities that decide on these pension cuts and casualisation are also the people who set higher and higher tuition fees and cut grants to poorer students, and so we encourage students to engage with striking staff to help force the university to treat staff more fairly and fighting to provide fairer education.

Personally, I am a member of staff at the university and am a current student (and have been since 2013). I recognise the various tensions and frustrations. As a Union (trade or student) it’s our responsibility to protect our most vulnerable members, from students who face various hardships to academic staff on precarious contracts and who are underpaid and struggling to get by. It’s only by working together that we will be able to ensure these people are treated fairly by the university.

If you look at how HE has [negatively] affected staff wellbeing this has a follow-on effect for the students they are teaching. In this period where home students are paying £9,250+ a year and international students even more, Vice-Chancellors are seeing their pay increase while staff are seeing real-terms pay cuts and a loss of permanent jobs alongside a lack of equality in hiring that makes it harder for women, people of colour, and people with disabilities to get academic job contracts.

I have been an MA student at Keele in 2011 and saw how successful and happy a fully staffed team functioned, with life, teaching and research balance. I returned in 2017 and I am shocked at how bad things are for staff. I am now an LLM/PhD student and know that it is essential to support the strike action before the VC and strategic management lose all of the staff because of the working conditions/pay/pensions. The impact on students to staff turnaround is awful. I witnessed this in social work and the workload and culture was why I left to become a full time student. We did work hard and improved the course but ultimately the workload and culture were ridiculous. I can see in the Law School that staff are fighting against the neoliberal approach to education but they cannot do this without the help and support of the students.

Loss of learning is indeed something that will happen in the immediate term, but the alternative is losing academic staff, professional support staff, in the long term alongside all of the benefits these staff provide to your university experience. Though the strike action is directly caused by cuts to pensions and a refusal by UUK to negotiate fairly about this, the broader effects of marketisation of higher education, from higher fees to casualisation and increased redundancies to put more pressure on remaining staff have also had their effects.

After my first year being interrupted and affected by strikes and COVID, my second year being affected by COVID, this is my third and final year, do you think this is acceptable for this being someone’s ‘university experience’? Additionally it feels like the lecturers do not care about how it affects students, after a horrendous 2 years, they want to interrupt studies even more with striking. If lecturers are absent will this be reflected on students work due to having no lectures? If so, Will there be anything in place to help students through strikes?

Lots of people come together under the UCU, it is not just a union for lecturers. Academic staff have to give up pay, a lot of emotional labour, and the chance to teach students in order to strike, and none of this is done lightly. UUK do not want to negotiate the pension cuts despite constant work by the UCU to negotiate, and it is only after years of this being refuted that the decision to strike has taken place.
The UUK agreed to uphold various recommendations in return for the UCU choosing not to strike previously. The UUK then went back on those recommendations, despite this previous agreement, which is why we are in the situation we are in now. I can assure that lecturers do care strongly about students, and if they did not would have chosen to strike much earlier and much more severely otherwise. It is only in order to protect students and their education in the long-term that the decision to strike now has taken place.
Many staff are not paid for preparation of lectures, nor covering for ill colleagues, and do this work to provide for students. Many (often younger) academic staff work on very low pay and without permanent contracts for years while still helping students often outside the responsibilities of their contracts.
Additional note from Elected Officers - The point of ASoS is that actually, lecturers usually do go beyond their contracts to support students, whether that's sneding out of hours emails, covering for staff, and providing a lot of personal support. The UCU also agreed to take Action Short of Striking in early 2020, but deliberately chose not to do so in order to support students as we entered the Covid-19 Pandemic.

I agree with the reasons for striking given the inequality in pay between the highest earners and the lowest within Universities. I agree that lecturers that are fairly remunerated will feel appreciated, motivated and provide high quality teaching. However, I am in my final year and have suffered two years of Covid disruption. I do not feel that disrupting students teaching will win friends or influence people. Perhaps as a student body we can do something to show our support and solidarity that will add weight to the argument without disrupting learning too much?

Students can show their solidarity by showing up to the picket line (the line where academic staff will be stood raising awareness for the strike action) on the strike days, wearing UCU colours (purple and pink) and where possible not crossing the picket line on those strike days. Going on strike in the middle of a pandemic and trying to finish a PhD is not a vibe, and this is done looking at the broader future outlook of higher education rather than just the present moment.
University management are more persuaded by student opinion than staff and so if students get in touch with Trevor (t.j.mcmillan@keele.ac.uk) this will go a long way to showing the university they need to take this seriously. The current system of education is the one that leaves 75% of PhD students on casual contracts, one that sees students in Manchester, Sussex and elsewhere caged up in their accommodation during a pandemic, and it’s these outrageous behaviours that shape the way HE is currently run and needs to change.

I fully support any action taken by the UCU and it’s members, I’m disgusted with the university for letting it get to this stage - I pay thousands of pounds for two day’s teaching which is inaccessible for many as 70% of it is online and my lecturers are only employed for one day's work. They are passionate about their subject and I’m passionate about learning but it is unworkable at this moment. If this doesn’t change I’ll be dissuading anyone from considering Keele in the future and writing to the BACP to encourage they remove their accreditation for all counselling courses run through Keele.

That's genuinely disheartening that any student would have this experience and their support is really appreciated; the UCU are only fighting because they are at breaking point as stories like this show. University staff have seen a 40% cut in their real-time pay since 2010 while management see their six-figure salaries increase. We want to see a reduction in the gender pay gap among academics. People have had a long time to address these issues, to rectify the problems, and instead these are ignored or dismissed which is what has led to the recent decision to strike.
If you were asked to work in return for a certain amount of money, and then are asked to work those hours for free, that would not be reasonable and you would not accept that; by the same argument, this is why the UCU is choosing to strike. Strike action is hard, and though this is not as long a strike as previous years it is still a great sacrifice (the UCU is operating a hardship fund during this time to look after staff most at risk from the financial loss) but is necessary because the alternative is the current burnout and overworked and underpaid conditions that academic staff find themselves currently.
Additional note from Elected Officers - We encourage any students contacting external regulators (those on accredited courses like Medicine and Counselling) to make the university aware of these as well so they are aware of the consequences of not working with the UCU.

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You can also learn more on the University's FAQ page and on Keele UCU's social media accounts.

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