Crunch time on campus

In August, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) brought its long-running dispute over pay and conditions into the new academic year 2023/24, announcing five days of action – though later adding an opt-out clause for branches outside of Scotland.

This latest round of strikes also coincided with a nationwide re-ballot of UCU members, which started on 20 September and will decide whether this dispute – involving the so-called ‘Four Fights’ over pay, pay equality, workloads and casualisation – is extended into the spring of 2024. 

While at the time of publication it is impossible to know exactly the outcome of the re-ballot, what is for certain is that the accumulated anger of university staff, which has found expression in the historic industrial action taken by UCU and joint unions over the past twelve months, has not gone away. 

The below-inflation pay ‘increase’ imposed by the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) earlier this year has done little to alleviate the agonising cost of living for university staff. The threat of redundancies still looms over thousands of those workers, as a record number of universities report deficit budgets. Vice-chancellors, whose first instinct over the past decade has been to cut jobs and services in order to ‘balance the books’, are meanwhile commanding higher salaries than ever, often hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In other words, the unbearable conditions facing university staff have been far from resolved. This provides the flammable material for strikes to again engulf UK universities, quite possibly in the very near future.

The prospect of further strikes invites the vital question of how they can win. How can university staff be guaranteed well-paid, secure and fulfilling jobs? How can UCU, to borrow one of its slogans from this dispute, fight to ‘save higher education’? What kind of struggle is required to win the fully funded, free, and democratic university system that is needed to run higher education as a public good, available to all in society? 

The university strikes, spearheaded by UCU, have been a key part of the strike wave that has swept across Britain in the last 18 months. Since November 2022, over 70,000 UCU members have taken strike action across 150 UK universities, joining thousands of workers in other university-based unions. The two biggest days of co-ordinated strike action in Britain since the public sector strikes of 2011, 1 February and 15 March 2023 – involving 500,000 and 600,000 workers respectively – both featured striking university workers.

Like all other workers taking industrial action, UCU members have had to contend with the Tories’ undemocratic 2016 Trade Union Act. Previously, these laws saw UCU balloting members on a disaggregated basis, meaning that only branches passing the 50% turnout threshold can legally go on strike.

It was therefore a historic moment when UCU broke through the anti-union thresholds on an aggregated (ie UK-wide) basis for the first time in October 2022, and again in April 2023, joining a number of other unions that have smashed that very same obstacle during the strike wave, often by a considerable margin.

That mood to fight from below has pushed the UCU leadership every step of the way, as shown by the union calling for an unprecedented 18 days of action across February and March 2023, for instance.

At the same time, the UCU leadership, and above all general secretary Jo Grady, have attempted to hold these strikes back at each stage. Grady has herself made several attempts to override the elected lay leadership of the union, going as far as calling off multiple days of strikes.

This interplay between a rank and file wanting to continue the struggle, and a leadership looking to curb that enthusiasm in order to wind down the strikes at the first opportune moment, has been a general feature of the strike wave up to this point. 

The limiting factor of the trade union leaders, together with the absence of any mass party giving political expression to the demands of striking workers, has prevented many of the national strikes from achieving anything like an inflation-proof offer on pay. This includes the university strikes, which in 2022/23 forced an offer from UCEA of between 5-8%, but at a time when inflation was still in double figures.

Of course, the strike wave has shown that workers can win more by fighting together than not fighting at all. But for many UCU members, the lack of a real victory in the past year has been a hard pill to swallow. Unlike those of most other workers, UCU’s disputes have been ongoing since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Many university staff and students will be wondering when and how the strikes will ever end.

UCU launched its current Four Fights campaign in 2019, at a time when university staff had seen their pay cut by 20% since 2010. On average, academic staff were working two extra days a week on top of their contractual hours, and 30% of all teaching was performed by workers on casualised, hourly paid contracts. The situation has only got worse since then.

As was outlined in Socialism Today No.255 (February 2022), the roots of the current university crisis lie in the market-based expansion of higher education, which began with the introduction of tuition fees by Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1998. This marketised system has pushed universities to operate like capitalist enterprises, competing with one another for income in the form of students’ tuition fees – increasingly from international students, who pay more – while cutting costs in order to make a surplus.

Inflation over the past decade has now cut the value of fees by 35%, plunging many universities into financial crisis. Across the board, university employers have tried to make up for this loss of funding by increasing attacks on staff. This is the backdrop to the unprecedented university strikes of the past year, compounded by the cost-of-living crisis affecting the working and middle classes in general.

However, not all universities have been equally affected by inflation. At the start of the 2022/23 strikes, UCU reported that half of the £3.4 billion surplus in the university sector belonged to just two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. And at the opposite end of the financial spectrum, one-third of England’s universities are now operating at a deficit. Some cash-strapped universities are even postponing this year’s pay award into 2024.

Of course, the financial travails of a section of universities cannot prevent workers from getting the pay and conditions they need. If university employers claim they cannot afford to guarantee inflation-proofed pay rises, secure contracts, manageable workloads, and equal pay for all its staff, then their finances should be opened up to democratic inspection by the campus trade unions, along with democratically elected committees of students. If a university is genuinely short of cash, then the government should step in with emergency funding, with money given to universities under trade union oversight.

Even where universities are in deficit, staff and student oversight would allow scrutiny over where university funds are being spent. In the last decade, the percentage of university income spent on staff has fallen, but spending on capital projects has increased. Look at the University of Brighton, where staff launched indefinite strike action this year after senior management announced plans to cut over 100 jobs in a bid to save £17.9 million, just shortly after spending £17 million on buying out the lease for a gym.

The demand for the democratic control of university finances must also be combined with a strategy for winning adequate university funding, without the risk of relapsing into financial crisis in the future. This would ultimately mean replacing the current fee-based funding model with full public funding for higher education, provided directly by the government.

That would require billions of pounds to be invested in universities, and the waging of a mighty political struggle. But why couldn’t UCU help to lead such a struggle? Building on the historic strikes it has led in the past year, while uniting with other trade unions in a mass movement to kick out the Tories; to put mass pressure on a future Starmer-led government, as well as fighting for socialist policies, including free and democratically run education; and taking steps towards creating a mass party based on the trade unions that could be a vehicle for waging such a political struggle.

The reality is that UCU has not sufficiently linked its campaign over pay and conditions to the need for additional funding, which could take account of the unevenness of universities’ finances, and be a step towards a free, fully publicly funded higher education system.

Instead, Jo Grady has repeatedly pointed to the total reserves and surplus of the university sector as a whole as the way to fund workers’ pay rises, while ignoring the need for a political movement to fund universities by taking the wealth and resources off the big corporations and super-rich individuals – which would likely include many of those donors who contribute to the bloated surpluses of universities like Oxford and Cambridge!

For the first time in the Four Fights dispute, this academic year – or, at the very latest, the start of 2024/25 – will see a general election in which the Tories are overwhelmingly likely to be kicked out and replaced by a Keir Starmer-led Labour government.

Only a few months ago, Grady said that Starmer should be “backing staff, not bosses”, as the Labour leader called on UCU to end its marking and assessment boycott. But Starmer and the rest of the pro-business, pro-austerity Labour leadership have shown time and again that they are firmly on the side of the bosses and aim to keep it that way once in power.

So what political conclusions should Grady, and the many thousands of UCU members who have been on strike this past year, now draw about what is necessary to win their current dispute? Will UCU members campaign for the union’s political fund – which currently does not contribute to any party in particular – to be used to back the campaigns of pro-worker, pro-education candidates in the next general election, including UCU members standing themselves?

As leader of a Tory government in 2017, Theresa May was forced to freeze tuition fees and increase the threshold at which students begin repaying their student debt. While that tuition fee freeze has accelerated the deterioration of universities on the basis of a marketised funding model, both measures were broadly beneficial for students entering university between 2017 and today.

Those concessions were made under pressure from an opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose anti-austerity policies – including the demand for free education – inspired millions of workers and young people. This example gives a glimpse of what even a handful of trade union and socialist MPs could play today, acting as a lightning rod for all the struggles that are set to continue in the coming period – including in the universities.

For students today, the ongoing university crisis has added to the nightmarish situation that capitalism means for young people. Marketisation and underfunding have had a disastrous effect on students’ living standards. The average shortfall between maintenance loans and living costs is now a record £582 per month. And students starting university this year will pay back a far greater portion of their student loans than previous cohorts, due to recent changes in the loan repayment system.

There has not yet been an organised fightback by students against the attacks they face, ultimately due to an absence of organisation – on or off campus – giving students any alternative. This lack of organisation has helped vice-chancellors in their efforts to divide staff and students, most notably during the recent marking and assessment boycott. If the UCU ran a campaign explicitly linking the fight for funding and free education, it could rally students to its banner and re-ignite a new generation on campus. Seeing students fighting could in turn raise the confidence of staff in their own action.

The crumbling of the universities, mirroring the crumbling of British capitalism in general, lays the foundations for future industrial battles on campus. Socialist Party members in UCU are fighting now to build effective, democratic, and open broad left organisations at each layer of the union, to bring activists together and defend the action against any anti-democratic manoeuvring by the union leadership. Such formations should discuss and fight for a political programme: against marketisation, for free education, and for the funding needed to run higher education as a public good.

Adam Powell-Davies