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‘Our problem isn’t with the students, it’s with the unis’: Exeter lecturers on why they’re striking

‘Many colleagues have kids and are going to take a big hit from this – the university will hold on to that money’


We’ve now had six of the 18 days of UCU strikes. Lecturers are campaigning for a meaningful pay rise to ease the cost of living crisis, the ending of use of insecure contracts, and are demanding unis revoke cuts to pensions and restore benefits. One third of higher education staff are paid by the hour or have no permanent contracts.

Many students have mixed responses to the whole situation, most standing with their lecturers, whilst some others feel they should not be caught in the crossfire.

A reported 59 per cent of students support the strikes, despite being worried about their academic performance and missed contact time. The Tab Exeter interviewed lecturers from the University of Exeter across different departments, in order to gain insight into their perspectives on the strikes, and mostly, the things they wanted the students to know. The strikes are seemingly characterised by weaponised misrecognition and understanding, so we decided to talk to the university’s staff to see what they had to say.

Department of social sciences

“I will be participating in the strikes, although I am hopeful they will be called off through the negotiation process.

“There are a variety of different causes hung under the strike action: pay disparities, casualisation. For me, the main ones are the anti-casualisation movement as we want to take steps to limit the number of people on short-term contracts, it’s not a good way to encourage or support academics. Pensions are a big financial aspect, we cannot have unlimited pay rises obviously but they’ve gone back on their deal. As an academic, you sacrifice the pay you would get in the private sector. We take a lower pay and one thing meant to counter that is the pensions. It’s also part of a general opposition to the marketisation of higher education.

“Some misconceptions occur about the nature of strike actions. It’s not a protest when you see lecturers on the picket line, a picket line is different. You are visibly withholding labour and not getting paid for the days you are on strike. Many colleagues have kids and they are going to take a big hit from this and the University will hold onto that money. It’s a sacrifice to us because we want to teach and we do not want it to be disrupted. Your education is our priority. If there’s a way to remedy this that would be the right thing to do.”

Post-graduate teaching assistant

“Some misconceptions occur about the nature of strike actions. It’s not a protest when you see lecturers on the picket line, a picket line is different. You are visibly withholding labour and not getting paid for the days you are on strike. Many colleagues have kids and they are going to take a big hit from this and the University will hold onto that money. It’s a sacrifice to us because we want to teach and we do not want it to be disrupted. Your education is our priority. If there’s a way to remedy this that would be the right thing to do.”

Post-graduate teaching assistant

“Something needs to change. I am taking time away from my parents and my family. We all need a balance and the lecturers’ mental health is dropping. We don’t have the time to think about how to be a good parent, a partner or a friend because we are spending all our free time doing work that we should be being paid for. We need to find how we recognise and value labour. We don’t get paid for all the extra help we give, and my students deserve more than 20 minutes of me looking at the work they put so much effort into. It’s not fair on either of us.”

When asked how students can best support the strikes, they replied: “Don’t go to uni on the strike days. You could go to the picket line to show support or email the university to complain that your education is being interrupted. If you do email, your complaint should be with the University rather than about your personal lecturers! Students don’t realise that they are the consumers. The University should satisfy the needs of the consumers so the more emails they get the more they feel the pressure.”

Humanities department  

“I suppose the central answer is that I am a member of the union and the union wants me to strike. I also did vote to support the strike so my reasons for that are that I think it is terrible that our pay keeps decreasing and our pensions are being completely trashed. My early career colleagues are being forced into casual contracts and zero-hour contracts.

We asked what they perceived the main misconceptions about the strikes to be. They replied: “I don’t have a clear sense of what misconceptions there are out there but I do think management tries to present the strikes as though it is the lecturers attacking the students but our problem is not with the students, it is with the universities. It is not just here, in some ways Exeter is quite good but this is about the universities as a collective so that is what the target is. Unfortunately, the students get used as collateral but it is not the lecturers or the Union doing this, it is the universities who already treat them like this and put them in the middle. We could strike out of term time and refuse to do our research but the University wouldn’t care about that, they care if we don’t teach. Even if we were doing it for free I think we would prefer to be teaching than standing on a picket line.

“There are a few things students can do. They can show up to the picket line, they’re always welcome to come as supporters and stand with their lecturers. In past strikes, students have actually caused their own disruptions. One time a group of students took over the Peter Chalk building where they recognised most Economic lectures took place so they targeted that and locked themselves in the building. It is where non-union lecturers usually are so they stayed in there for an entire week I think, or something like that, and made it impossible for anyone to get in at that time. Students have the power to make a lot more noise than we do.”

The University of Exeter has been contacted for comment.

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