The latest round of strike action by University of Bristol teaching and research staff came to an end today with a fancy dress protest.
Staff with the University and College Union (UCU) have been on strike since Monday (March 28) in ongoing disputes over pensions which first saw strike action in December last year.
Today (April 1) saw around 100 strikers join picket lines and later a rally at the Victoria Rooms and a march to College Green. Some had come in fancy dress, in part to mark April Fool’s Day and in part to enliven what has become a drawn-out and wearying struggle over pensions, pay and conditions.
Speaking at the rally, Kit Fotheringham, anti-casualisation officer for Bristol UCU, said: ‘When you get a zero percent pay rise, that is a pay cut. When your pension has been cut in half, that is a pay cut. When more than half of staff in the education sector are thinking of leaving you know something’s gone wrong. It’s just a disgrace.’
At the root of the strikes is the 2020 decision by Universities UK (UUK), who oversee a major university pension fund, to devalue their pension and the pensions of staff by 35%, or even more in some cases.
UUK have said the cuts are necessary to account for a drop in the value of the pension scheme. Opponents argue that the most recent valuation was conducted in March 2020 at the height of pandemic-induced stock market turmoil resulting in a faulty valuation.
Further, the pension provider announced in January that its assets have rebounded to more than £25bn higher than the previous valuation. The UCU say that UUK’s justification for the cuts “has now evaporated”.
The present strikes have achieved something on this issue. On Monday, Bristol UCU and the University of Bristol released a joint statement calling for a revaluation of the university pension scheme and for a shake-up of governance at UUK. The statement also made explicit that any benefits from the revaluation should be passed on to staff in the form of improved benefits.
The strikes are also a consequence of what staff see as deteriorating working conditions, particularly the widespread use of casual contracts within academia. Such contracts might see a researcher employed on a year-to-year contract, with no guarantee of renewal, or only employed ten months of the year and not during the summer.
Casual contracts are unfortunately all too common in many workplaces today, and university staff face the same difficulties of finding accommodation and providing for their families.
Bracing against the arctic cold in the shadow of the Richmond Building, home of Bristol Students’ Union, Miguel Gaggioti and Caitlin Shaw, from the Department of Film and Television, spoke of living ‘in a perpetual state of anxiety’ as a result of being on casual contracts. Although both now have permanent contracts, they still face uncertainty.
Caitlin moved from Hertfordshire for her current role, which she said was an option for her as she has no partner or children. Anyone with dependents could not be so flexible and Miguel said the profession should accommodate people’s needs.
Both agreed that casual contracts like hourly-paid contracts can be a good thing, for instance for PhD candidates wishing to pick up teaching work during their studies. The issue is when casual contracts become the norm, at which point, said Caitlin, ‘it’s about saving money and exploiting people.’
Connor Ryan, also of the department of film and television, said that ultimately society pays a price for an education sector in crisis. The quality of education itself is compromised, he said, and all the research work that universities do is undermined when educators are constantly worried about day-to-day concerns of making ends meet.
Throughout, the strikes have been supported by students. At today’s rally, Anna, a spokesperson for Student Action Bristol, which emerged from the Wills Memorial Building occupation last month, said: ‘we want to give longevity and purpose to the energy that’s sprung up from students to stand in solidarity with you because it was potent.’
She went on to say that the group will support the work of unions to further the demands of University staff, and use ‘a range of tactics, including direct action,’ to pursue their own demands. ‘We’re not going away, we’re not going to be quiet. Student-staff solidarity is here to stay,’ she said.
With fancy dress, music and “potatoes of protest”, today’s rally was more jovial than some of its precursors. However, with no sign of movement from UUK there is little light at the end of the tunnel and the UCU are currently balloting on further strikes in the summer.