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Uni staff say enough! Strikes hit Oxford for three days

Maggie Wilcox and Rebecca Powell report.

Oxford University staff will be joining 70,000 other University and College Union (UCU) members taking industrial action on the 24th, 25th and 30th November.  The national wave of strikes is in response to working conditions, insufficient pay to meet living standards and precarious employment.

All of these issues have been brought to the national forefront by the cost of living crisis, but in Oxford affordability has been a concern for many years. Employees of Oxford University, especially early career researchers and postgraduate students, have been feeling the pinch of trying to make a living in one of the UK’s most expensive cities. David Chivall, a lab manager in the School of Archeology and Vice President of the Oxford UCU branch, has been working in Oxford for seven years. During this time, he has had to move houses eight times due to the inaccessibility of housing prices for someone on an Oxford research salary. 

There is often a perception that the early stages in an academic or research career will be financially precarious as an aspiring professor undertakes years of study and entry-level positions. However, job and economic instability have become a fact of life for many researchers, even those with years of experience. Casualisation, or the shift to short term, fixed contract employment, is at the root of many of these problems facing university employees. According to an anonymous testimonial from a UCU report on precarious academic work in Oxford published in February 2022, there is a myth that “bright PhD students getting their foot on the career ladder” need to take casualised teaching contracts. In reality, many researchers continue to take such contracts for years and are never provided “secure and dignified contracts”. Furthermore, teaching contracts can take away from a young academic’s time to develop their own work and scholarship.

Even those that fully concentrate on their research are still overwhelmingly employed on fixed-term contracts. Dr. Hilary Wynne, a postdoctoral researcher in linguistics, has a full-time fixed contract position with the university and has experiences difficulties receiving her wages. In her first three months on contract, she wasn’t paid. In her new role with a higher paygrade, she has yet to see a change of her status on the university payroll. She is not “particularly optimistic” that she will see her agreed raise next payday. 

Despite these issues, Dr. Wynne enjoys working in Oxford and describes her experience as “enlightening, exciting, rewarding”. Since the signing of the Concordat for Researchers in 2008 and updated in 2019, things have improved for postdocs and fixed term researchers. However, Dr. Wynne and the UCU say that the university needs to do more to address the widespread use of insecure contracts and insufficient pay. Dr Wynne reiterates how it is difficult for researchers to “pay household bills and rent in Oxford, let alone ever dream of buying a house or starting a family.”

The University has taken steps to help researchers afford Oxford, particularly since inflation has increased. They have acknowledged  “the impact of the rising costs of living on the student community and recognise that it is a source of worry for many students and are continuing our efforts to ensure our financial support addresses this”. In this light, they have compiled information to help students and staff manage their finances. 

As well, in June 2022, the University gave staff a £1,000 “thank you” payment for their dedication throughout the pandemic and as an acknowledgement of the growing cost of living. The UCU welcomed this action, but urged the university to go farther and increase staff pay in a sector which has seen a 25% decline in pay relative to RPI since 2009. In the same time period, the higher education sector has seen its profits rise by 15%.

The three days of industrial action will commence with a rally on Broad Street and, throughout, non-college buildings will be picketed. For this period, academics, tutors, librarians and researchers employed by the university will also refuse to compensate for work lost due to strike action and cover for absent colleagues. Consequently, 2.5 million students nation-wide are expected to be adversely affected by the disruption. In Oxford, the university have announced that while they  understand staff concerns, they “also have a duty to ensure that our education and research activities continue as far as possible” and have put contingency plans in place. 

Prof Nikita Sud, a Professor of Politics and Development, stressed in a message to her students that she did “not want strike action to affect students”. She went on to emphasize how much she enjoyed teaching and most aspects of her job. However, she firmly believes in the UCU action “want[s] to make clear to management that [employee] labour is not dispensable and needs to be adequately compensated and recognised”.

If the university does not bring improved offers to the table that satisfy union demands, the UCU have proposed escalated action in the New Year alongside a potential marking and assessment boycott. Prof Sud emphasizes: “The onus is very much on university managements to negotiate with the University and College Union (UCU) to reach a resolution. The dispute won’t resolve itself, or disappear.”

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