Here’s what your lecturers want you to know about the Birmingham UCU strikes

We heard from lecturers on the strikes

Strikes disrupt the academic experience students have paid valuable money for, but are they for a necessary cause? 

It is easy to understand how UoB students can be feeling frustrated, as 18 days of strikes have been announced between February and March 2023. However, as it is so disruptive to student learning, it is important for students to know why they are taking place, from those most closely affected.

The Birmingham Tab interviewed five members of staff from the University of Birmingham, who gave their honest opinions on the strike action and how it may benefit the future of teaching. 

The Bournbrook picket line on the 1st February. Credit via Twitter

For their own safety and job security we provided these lecturers with anonymity. This was to eliminate the risk of their statements being used against them and so they could give their full and honest opinion. 

As we spoke to the members of staff at the University of Birmingham, a trend started to appear. One being the desire for relief from an overwhelming workload. 

Lecturer A mentioned that “since Covid began, my workload has nearly doubled.” They continued, “I squeeze more and more work into less time, while my pay, in real terms, shrinks. This isn’t just about me feeling overworked and underpaid for it – there is a limit to how much I can possibly work and I hit that a long time ago.” 

It was reflected through many of the staff members that they feel as though teaching standards would increase if their workloads decreased. Lecturer B said: “Students will not benefit from a system in which the staff who teach them and support them in various other roles (such as library or welfare) are chronically underpaid and overloaded, or without job security or without the prospect of a liveable pension. Staff can give their best to students when they can carry out their work under reasonable conditions.” 

Therefore, it seems as though in today’s climate, lecturers are just stretched too far. Staff at the University of Birmingham are frustrated about the exploitation of their time with no compensation for it. As workloads increase, wages do not. Covid, as can be deferred from the evidence, has caused more complex issues than simply having to adapt to online learning. Staff numbers are decreasing and the workload is not. 

Credit via Twitter @BirminghamUCU

From the interviews conducted, it was apparent that lecturers feel as though their students are being let down by a system that is no longer concerned with traditional higher education. 

Lecturer C said: “I believe that the institutions and the very idea of public education is being wrecked in this country by a corporate model that keeps driving staff while handing out unjustifiably bloated salaries to unaccountable managers, who spend money on dubious prestige projects like the Dubai Campus instead of lobbying to reduce student fees and bring back greater government funding.” 

Lecturer D commented on the same note: “I’m striking against the idea that a university should be run like a business, that a student is simply a customer, and that academics are just cogs in a machine designed to churn out degrees. I want to belong to a community of higher learning, run democratically by the people who belong to that community.” 

Lecturers are stretched further with little, to no aid, and no sign of additional staff. Therefore, they are beginning to feel as though the higher education system is like a conveyor belt. The strikes, fundamentally, campaign for a system that is fair and works for all. 

From the reports received, it is evident that the university is riddled with structural injustices. Lecturer E explained: “Over the last decade, the sector as a whole has witnessed a catastrophic escalation of workload, precarity and entrenched inequalities that makes quality teaching ever more difficult. As someone whose teaching and research is about injustice, I believe structural problems require collective action.” 

Lecturer A: “We want our pension restored, our pay to increase at the rate of inflation, our staff to be hired on fair contracts, for women to be paid the same as men and BAME staff to be paid the same as white staff. Is that really such an extraordinary thing to ask?” 

Information available through the University of Birmingham website revealed that as of 2022, women receive an average hourly wage which is 16.3 per cent lower than men. The gender pay gap has only decreased by 3.6 per cent since 2017. Similarly, the average hourly pay for Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff is 11.7 per cent lower than for staff from white ethnic groups.

Frustrations are boiling over because the pay is not increasing at the rate of inflation, workloads are increasing and staff are being paid differently depending on the colour of their skin or their gender. 

The average lecturer in the UK earns just under £34,000. In comparison, the Vice Chancellor at the University of Birmingham, in the academic year of 2020/21 earned £347,000. Therefore, it seems as though there are huge injustices within the university system, which staff members can no longer put up with.

The strikes are motivated by the new pension scheme introduced in April 2022 and all the staff interviewed mentioned this. Lecturer B had this to say about the situation: “Pensions…will ultimately be paid to members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (that is, the pensions of a large proportion of the people who teach students, and some of those who support students in other roles such as library and welfare).

“The pension scheme was valued at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time of significant economic turbulence. That valuation was used to make the argument that the scheme faced a serious shortfall and the only way to keep it afloat was to drastically reduce the benefits that staff would be guaranteed to receive in retirement. It also means there is an increase in the amounts that staff pay in each month during the years that they are working. Those changes were forced through in April 2022.” 

They continued: “The pension scheme is now showing a healthy surplus. The logic behind the changes, therefore, does not stand up – which is exactly what staff members and our union were saying earlier this year when we were on strike about the very same issue.” 

Therefore, the staff at the university are now facing their pensions being cut and having a reduced wage to live on when they retire, which renders financial insecurity for the future. 

After interviewing staff, there was an overwhelming consensus that change needed to happen for the university to be a better and beneficial environment for all. I reached out to the university for comment on the strikes and to see if there were any plans for cooperation in the future. 

A University of Birmingham spokesman said: “We are disappointed that UCU are balloting for strike action which will impact both students and colleagues. We recognise that staff are feeling the effect of the cost-of-living crisis and have already increased pay above the national position for all of our staff groups. Constructive discussions have already led to beneficial outcomes for support staff, and we would call for ongoing engagement with UCU rather than industrial action which is disruptive for all of our university community.”

Articles recommended by this writer:

⋅University of Birmingham strike confirmed, with 11 days in February and seven in March

⋅The first day of Birmingham UCU strikes is only two weeks away

⋅Is your food up to scratch? We rated UoB students’ plates