The current UCU strike affects many colleagues working in Higher Education (HE). Often labelled by the media as a ‘lecturers’ strike’ it reinforces the perception that this round of industrial action is only about hardships faced by teaching staff and by inference, that Professional Services (PS) staff (often referred to as ‘support’ staff) are less skilled, less valuable, less visible. However, we are professionals (albeit in a poorly defined ‘profession’) and we play critical and central roles in HE.
The restructure at Kent has been challenging for Professional Services teams. Colleagues have left Kent and not been replaced. Knowledge and expertise spanning many years has haemorrhaged from the institution. Remaining colleagues or new temporary colleagues on precarious contracts have been left to plug the gaps and are working over and above what should normally be expected – they are teetering on the verge of exhaustion, burnout and breakdown. This is taking its toll on colleagues, many of whom are at breaking point. The odd yoga hour or Wellbeing Day doesn’t cut it!
Half recovered from illness, frantic colleagues return to work in haste to tackle overflowing inboxes and multiple clashing urgent deadlines (and then email colleagues who are equally overworked). Professional Services staff are under increasing pressure to deliver, to impact, to ‘perform’. In challenging times, we’re going above and beyond through fear of job losses and redundancy ‘incentives’.
The Higher Education sector is in an ongoing crisis and too many university workers have had enough of their working conditions. Yet, there is a very poor understanding of these conditions within universities, in broader society and in the media. People often don’t know what academics or researchers or postgraduates or Professional Services colleagues actually do every day. Without a properly valued workforce, it proves challenging to be able to work to the best of your abilities, especially if you don’t know whether you will have a job in six months’ time or be able to pay your rent or mortgage.
UCU members felt angered in 2018 when their pensions were under attack and I found myself standing on a picket line for the very first time in my life. Now once again, whilst universities are charging students record high fees, staff have reached breaking point over a number of issues, including workloads, precarity, real-terms cuts in pay, a 15% gender pay gap and further changes to pensions for staff.
Nobody wants to be on strike. Picketing is exhausting and the weather is often against us. Yet
it’s also uplifting – the camaraderie is second to none. Thousands of university staff nationally are united and gaining a deeper understanding of our real power and political choices at the forthcoming general election.
Professional Services staff must stand together. No longer part of the furniture, we are a vital cog in the wheel, invariably expected to deal instantly with whatever walks through the door or drops into the Inbox. When students have problems with anything, we are often the first they turn to.
This is our strike too. Our pay, our equality issues, our workload and our pensions. No longer anonymous or invisible, we are the University and we are the Union too!
As Billy Bragg sang:
‘There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a union.’