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“It’s a Tory finishing school”: university staff speak out against Oxford on strike day

Oxford University teaching staff took to the streets today, to protest against “shameful” working conditions in the first of many UCU strikes planned for the coming weeks. In a march through the town centre, many of Oxford’s lecturers, administrators, and security staff were joined by teachers from Oxford Brookes University, local schools, and rail workers, as part of the biggest strike action seen in the UK for over a decade.

One lecturer addressing the protest outside the Bodleian Libraries said, “we don’t get paid for the full time it takes to do the job”, claiming that lecture preparation and the time needed to mark students’ work is often “effectively unpaid”. For every one-hour lecture given, he stated that only an extra half-hour’s pay is received for preparation in the majority of cases, which “is simply not enough time to prepare teaching materials of the calibre expected at Oxford University”. 

Attesting to this, a lecturer on strike from the Department of Anthropolgy told Cherwell that she often works “late into the evening and at weekends” for no extra pay, in order to meaningfully mark student assignments. She added that this compromises her ability to carry out the personal research which Oxford academics are also expected to undertake.

Support for strike action is widespread in the Department of Anthropology, as a result of high UCU membership and “personal motivation”. Another Anthropology lecturer told Cherwell they were striking in solidarity with those on the lowest salaries, such as department administrators and teacher’s on temporary contracts. “It’s incredibly difficult for young people coming into education to reach a permanent teaching position” she explained, giving the example of two Mst. Creative Writing lecturers who are currently suing the university over “gig economy contracts”. A third lecturer at the protest added that “the commodification of education is getting worse every year”. 

Gerard Ward, an associate lecturer in Law at Oxford Brookes University, believes that this ongoing decline in working conditions has occurred in parallel with the “rinsing of the student loan system” by universities. Despite increases in undergraduate tuition fees and accommodation costs, Ward told Cherwell that the money often hasn’t been directed in the right ways, with funding being poured into “prestigious research projects” as opposed to workers’ salaries. Like those at Oxford University, Ward said many members of teaching staff at Brookes have precarious short-term contracts, adding that, alongside the decline in working conditions,  “general insecurity of staff employment is ultimately not good for students.” Having worked at three educational institutions across England in the last decade, Ward says that conditions “worsened noticeably” under a succession of Conserative governments.

John Wadesdon, a member of security staff at the Bodleian Libraries, said it was important that strikes are taking place here in Oxford. “It’s a Tory finishing school,” he told Cherwell, saying that the government officials who he believes are responsible for the deterioration of university administration “all came here and were taught corruption”.

Primary school teachers from around Oxford also took part in the mega-strike, in coordination with mass action by the National Education Union, accompanied by some parents. Local resident Mr Gomez, whose six-year-old daughter was unable to attend school because of the strike, told Cherwell: “our children are the future of society, and their teachers need decent pay”, adding that he completely supported the union’s action.

Oxford remains one of the most expensive cities in Europe to live in, with another speaker at the protest calling it “shameful” that teaching staff on “most likely illegal” contracts are struggling to find affordable housing despite being employed by such a prestigious university.

Along with strikes by rail workers, nurses, and teachers, UCU strikes are set to continue throughout February and March.

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