Staff at the University of Bristol have gone on strike over pay, pensions and working conditions.
At 11am this morning (December 1) a rally took place at Victoria Rooms, which houses the university’s music department, followed by a march to College Green with more than 1,000 staff and students participating.
The university and College Union (UCU) members across 58 UK Universities are all on strike over the next three days after voting in favour of two separate ballots, one on pensions and the other on pay and conditions.
Strikers and supporters at Bristol University are encouraging students not to attend classes over the next three days.
Students who support their striking lecturers have put together a programme of ‘teach outs’ over the next few days, led by a range of teaching staff.
Speakers at the rally this morning voiced concerns over the increasing casualisation of university staff, the deterioration in pay and cuts to their pensions. UCU union officers, staff members and students who spoke at the rally, were joined by support from Labour Metro Mayor Dan Norris and Deputy Green Party leader and Clifton councillor, Carla Denyer.
Kit Fotheringham, teaching associate and UCU branch officer, addressed the rally on the impact of casualisation. He said: “I’m now on my second mental breakdown, but do I have any sick pay? No, I’m still on casualised contracts.”
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He added that after four years of working at the university he will be made redundant at the end of year, alongside many of his colleagues.
While on average university staff across the UK will face a 36 per cent reduction in pensions, casual employees like Kit do not have the option of joining the pension scheme.
Under university employment contracts, staff are employed in one of three ‘pathways’.
Those in Pathways two and three are not able to join the pension scheme and have less secure employment contracts, with lower pay.
The UCU says wages have fallen by 20 per cent in the last 12 years.
“Many of you would have seen your electricity bills go up, mine’s doubled in the past month,” added Kit.
“We are choosing whether to eat or heat our home, absolute shame.”
In a separate interview Kit told Bristol Live that the Union has not yet had any communication from the Vice Chancellor over the latest dispute.
He said that the student to staff ratio has increased by 50 per cent and that with the Vice Chancellor’s salary of between £200,000 and £300,000 per year, the university could employ more permanent staff.
There are likely to be follow up strikes in the new year, with even more universities participating.
The Union is demanding a £2,500 pay rise for all staff, in addition to casual contracts, unmanageable workloads and pay inequality.
One Maths lecturer, Mark Hagan, who was on the march today said: “I have come to defend my own pension.
“I am also out here in solidarity with my colleagues who are subject to the gender and ethnic pay gap.
“And my colleagues on less secure contracts who really do most of the work around here.
“I am also at my wit’s end with my workload, I work double the number of hours than I am contracted to work, as does everyone else.
“My contract is for 35 hours a week but I don’t think I’ve ever done 35 hours a week,” added Mark.
Students in support of the strike spoke of how their learning and mental health are impacted by the deteriorating working conditions for university staff.
“We are out here supporting the UCU strikes because we believe that the working conditions of our teaching staff and support staff impact our learning conditions,” said James Fishwick.
“The increase in casualisation and commercialisation of the university has really impacted students’ lives in a number of ways in the last few years.
“With all the reports of students having to live in Bath and outside of the city because [the university] has taken on more students than it can handle.
“With staff having to teach more students than they can handle, it’s really taking its toll on mental health service at the uni.
“The three day impact that this is going to have on us is nothing compared to the impact of commercialisation, “ added Rohan Jobanputra, who is one of the students that organised the ‘teach outs’ taking place over the next three days.
The students also expressed their concerns over the current mental health crisis and the way they were treated during the pandemic, alongside concerns over the impact working conditions are having on staff mental health.
“The good thing about the teach outs is that it allows lecturers to teach topics that are really important to the students,” said Gabriel Starkey.
One of them being on “who is the university for?” which “is really relevant given the pandemic… and the issues and inequalities within the University.
“It allows lecturers to raise awareness on those important issues as well as continuing to teach,” added Gabriel.
A Bristol University spokesperson said: “Regrettably, the University and College Union (UCU) has announced further industrial action at the University of Bristol and other UK universities in the continued dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – staff pensions, and the national pay award for 2021/22.
“Industrial action is part of a complex national dispute. These are important issues and we respect the right of our staff to strike, which we know was not an easy decision to make.
“As a university, we have worked collaboratively with our staff and the local UCU branch to put our collective views forward and have argued for higher employer contributions to help ensure the USS Pension scheme is sustainable in the future.
“It goes without saying that our priority as a University is providing teaching and learning for our students, many of whom have already faced severe disruption due to the pandemic. We’re well-prepared to mitigate the impact of industrial action and will be doing all that we can to keep any impact on our students to a minimum this week.
“With reference to the annual pay award, the University is part of a national bargaining arrangement, and we have to act in accordance with the scheme and the positions of other members.
“As a University, we are proud of the way that we have worked with the local branch of UCU and the other trade unions to make things better for staff. We are open to continuing the conversation and being pro-active in addressing their concerns.”
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