I offer my full solidarity to the lecturers, researchers, PGCE students and all workers who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) and who will take strike action next month to stand up not only for themselves but for our entire education system, which is often bragged about in the House. I offer my solidarity and that of my party to those workers; I will be proud to stand with them on the picket line again, as I have done over the years.
The UCU will strike as part of its Our Four Fights campaign. Every one of those issues is worthy, in and of itself, of strike action and dedicated focus. The union is fighting against pay inequality. There has been a drop of over 17% in salaries since 2009, when measured against inflation. It is fighting to do away with a fixation on zero-hours contracts, which sees 3,500 staff in universities and colleges employed via them. It is highlighting the mental health impacts of increased workloads; 86% of staff have been referred for mental health support due to the effects of the their workloads. It is fighting against pay discrimination, which sees women, disabled people and black and Asian workers all being paid substantially less than their colleagues.
Those issues are not the only ones that those workers are fighting for. In addition, they are taking a blow against the idea of students as consumers and the full-scale marketisation of our education system, where the price of everything and the value of nothing are measured, where financial barriers are repeatedly erected for students and where students leave university with a mountain of debt.
As with every strike, there have been attempts to pit groups of workers or people against each other. Some are trying to suggest that the experiences of students, lecturers and education workers are different and unconnected. The threat, if you will, to students does not come from striking workers: those are the people who provide education on a daily basis and even did so during a pandemic, putting themselves in harm's way when summoned back to work when the virus was still circulating.
Sean O'Connell, a lecturer at Queen's, put it well recently when he said:
"The strike is about issues that are damaging for students as well as staff. We all co-exist in the same learning environment. The student experience is damaged when lecturers are overworked and stressed. The student experience is damaged when casualisation is a central factor in QUB employment policy."
The casualisation of staff has seen a huge impact, in the first instance on staff, but also on the form of teaching and support that students receive from staff who are in full-time employment and have fixed contracts, often overworked and doing the work of several people. There are also people working for below the minimum wage in universities when their full labour time is calculated, whilst vice chancellors earn close to a quarter of a million pounds. That is not saddening; it is revolting and it turns the stomach. When universities like Queen's University have some £647 million in reserves, it is even more sickening that it is preaching frugality to its workers who keep the place running. This week, there is a referendum in Queen's to support the strike action.