The industrial action taken by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) over changes to pensions is not just an opportunity for us to stand in solidarity with our lecturers as they strike against reforms that would leave them worse off. It should serve as a reminder that all university staff need and deserve our support as they face precarious employment. Any wave of student support for striking lecturers must bring about a politicised movement on campus which demands fairer employment for university staff and subsequently improved learning conditions for all students.
Those who work in academia do so because they are motivated by the pursuit and progress of knowledge. Research at the University of Edinburgh has the capacity to inspire a new generation of academics and provide innovative ways of approaching fundamental debates. Yet the student body seldom puts enough pressure on university management to ensure that all tutors and other teaching staff have the best possible working conditions.
The decision taken by the university in 2013 to end zero hour contracts was a positive and necessary change, but it resulted in many members of staff being placed on guaranteed hour (GH) contracts instead. These contracts stipulate a guaranteed number of hours that a tutor must work in a year, but are still casualised contracts which amount to poor job security. As a result, tutors are often not paid for the hours they spend preparing for teaching.
The UCU Edinburgh branch has stated that this continuation of casualised contracts on campus has meant that tutors cannot offer as much academic assistance to students as they would like to. A report by UCU in April 2016 stated that 67.5 per cent of the University of Edinburgh teaching staff were on insecure contracts, which demonstrates the immense stress levels that they face. While the university, through banning zero hour contracts, has made positive steps in recent years regarding workers’ rights, we must remain mindful of financial pressures on staff. We must never stop imploring university management to improve its working conditions, thereby enabling our tutors to dedicate more time to ensuring we receive the best education possible.
This is certainly not a call for all staff to immediately be offered permanent contracts. Indeed, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association point out that in order to respond to changes in demand universities must operate flexibly with their workforce. However, the university should certainly aim to increase the proportion of its staff on fixed term contracts. Additionally students, out of respect for the dedication of our teaching staff, must remain mindful of stringent working conditions for tutors, such as very limited time for marking essays.
The success of a motion calling for the Students’ Association to support the UCU strikes last week is indicative of our gratitude to lecturers who provide us with an exceptional education. This is heartening to see. It is time however for us all to back up our words with action and stand in solidarity with all university staff. We must continue to support the strikes and fight to protect the USS pension scheme. But equally we must urge our university to adopt the correct priorities, especially in light of tutors being overworked and underpaid whilst the new principal Peter Mathieson enjoys a whopping salary, in excess of £400,000.
To see so many students stand in solidarity with striking university staff is wonderful. May this teach university management and all employers an important lesson. We will always support staff in the fight against precarious employment, financial instability and exploitation because their working conditions are our learning conditions.
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