A feminist reading of UCU’s 4 fights

  1. Pay

The first fight is around pay. Real time pay has dropped Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), show that the pay of staff has dropped by around 17% in real-terms since 2009. The union says that staff pay has actually fallen by around 20% in the last decade. This has coincided with the largest period of building expenditure increases in UK universities. Put simply- now universities are competing to attract student’s tuition fees they are having to attract them in with fancier surroundings. To teach in opulent surroundings whilst seeing continued wage cuts is demoralising. We are also having to teach larger and larger classes as the universities over-recruit to ‘cheap to run’ courses. In the last wave of strikes my students started working out how much they ‘paid per class’ (although it obviously doesn’t work like that), but it was an interesting exercise- I was teaching a class of 150 at the time, and to explain to them where the amount they had worked out they were spending was going was hard- it certainly wasn’t on lecturers. At the time the university response was to also state it was for the library and subscriptions. Which is another demoralising academic racket- as we write and edit (for free), then have our work owned by journals (who charge people to read it) and the people who produce the knowledge receive nothing.

Young academics are also facing the double burden of paying high student loans back after the ever-increasing fee rises. Not just from undergraduate and postgraduate study, but also to supplement the PhD stipend (if you are lucky enough to get one). It is no wonder parents/carers drop out of academia before they have even completed doctoral study. The bursary just isn’t enough to support dependants, added to the fact you are not eligible for 30 hours free childcare, or standard maternity pay. The average student loan debt in the UK is about £35,000. Student loan interest rates are around 1.75%. The time period where many new academics will begin their career post-study is also the same time that is peak childbearing age for women in the UK (30 years). The first point of the ‘leaky pipeline’.

I just did the @ucu pension modeller. Under proposed changes and being right at the beginning of my pension, I stand to lose £9110 EVERY YEAR of my retirement 😱😱😱

The feminist issues around pay are also linked firmly with the rest of the 3 fights. Women who are carers are more likely to take on adjunct work, are more likely to be loaded with un-recognised service work, and in any case face a gender pay penalty…

  • Casualisation

Academic work is heavily casualised. I hadn’t realised this before I entered the sector, and I am sure students don’t realise the extent of it. I worked in adjunct roles for one year before I got my first permanent academic job (I am one of the lucky ones). At that time, I held zero-hour contracts at three universities and would pop in to each to fulfil a few hours of teaching. I remember the students in one site asking what I would be teaching the following year- the penny dropped to me then- they wouldn’t believe I was being paid little over the living wage for the work done and had no idea what I would be doing when the term ended. I was lucky enough to be able to do this for the invaluable ‘experience’, but as a parent of very small children at the time, if I didn’t have the financial support of my husband, it wouldn’t have been possible. It is because of this lack of a financial safety net in the work that this is where the ‘leaky pipeline’ of working class scholars also bleeds out- many can’t afford the risks of not having rent money in academic holidays. For those who do stick it out there have been recent reports in the media and on twitter of academics living in tents, cars, or even sleeping in the library as they couldn’t afford hotels and had a long commute (travelling far to work is pretty standard in insecure academia).

It goes without saying that the first feminist issue is that single parents would find this traditional pathway to tenure incredibly difficult. The material conditions outside of the pay were also very difficult on this type of contract. At one university I received my timetable 1 week before the semester. So you have to somehow sort out nursery (notoriously inflexible and over-stretched) to enable you to complete the work. As the adjunct you get allocated whatever classes are available- so accommodations like putting your classes on the same day are difficult to ask for. Yesterday one Vice Chancellor said that many academics choose to be on zero-hour contracts (which I doubt), but it is also worth considering that for mothers there is very little flexibility in many universities for part time or flexible contracts. When I got my first substantive academic post (with 3 children under 4 years old), I requested part-time, but was refused and told it would be too difficult. Another point at which the ‘leaky pipeline’ would lose women who don’t want to be forced between zero-hours to full-time.

  • Workload

Many UCU branches have included ‘action short of a strike’ as part of the general strike campaign. This means to work to your contracted hours. It is amazing to think of this really- when in most sectors you are only expected to work your contracted hours. In fact, in previous jobs I remember taking TOIL (Time owed in lieu) for any additional hours worked. The fact that this is revolutionary in the academic world says a lot. For instance, when marking comes in you can be assigned a load which equates to more than your weekly hours in itself. You have to find this time in addition to your normal workload- so many academics work evenings and weekends at these times. It is not difficult to understand why this is a huge cause of inequality. For staff with caring responsibilities, despite already managing the ‘second shift’ of the care burden, you are then having to do a third shift after the children are in bed to meet your standard work requirements. This is a feminist issue as there is established research which shows that in all sectors women face additional work in the family, as well as inequality in the paid labour force; ‘The two spheres of inequality reinforce one another’.

Women academics are also more likely to be given service work and emotional labour workload. The pastoral side of academic work has increased dramatically during the pandemic- students have reported much more mental health issues and have faced a wide range of challenges. One article that raised this was entitled; ‘Relying on Women, Not Rewarding Them’. The ‘caring work’ in academic departments is loaded on women’s shoulders and it is no surprise that this work does not result in material or promotional gains. In fact, this invisible work takes away productive research time and reinforces the wider gender pay and promotion gaps.

  • Equality

Obviously, the last fight is a feminist one. I am working in a university with a gender pay gap of 18.3% (mean), 13.7% (median) despite women making up 55% of the workforce. When taking an intersectional approach to pay equality the picture becomes even more insidious. The Guardian reports that White women academics earn more than Black men and women. It is not just about pay but also about representation. According to HESA data, there are around 350 Black female professors in the UK, out of a total number of 18,000 professors across the UK, meaning that Black women make up less than 2% of the professoriate in Higher Education. For all the talk of decolonising the curriculum, the reality is that if different groups are not represented in the highest levels in academia then there is unlikely to be a dramatic culture shift to diversify thinking.

One simple solution would be for workplaces simply to increase all the pay of their intersectionally disadvantaged staff- create a zero pay gap and then work from there. But unfortunately, it is maintained through invisible practices- who negotiates their salary, and who is more successful when they ask. Who is seen as ‘invaluable’ and who is disposable. Let’s not forget many women have been home-schooling at the same time as lecturing/researching over the past few years and universities have done shockingly little to recognise this or help. When the next REF cycle comes up I wonder how many women will be ‘underperforming’.

It is also worth recognising that gender discrimination in academia also extends to students. In lecturer evaluations students will consistently markup male lecturers. In one study of 22,665 evaluations they found male students mark male teaching as 30% better, despite students performing equally well in exams when taught by male or female teachers (suggesting the teaching was of equal quality). These evaluations then lead directly to evaluation for promotions. I constantly wonder- if we KNOW students are biased in teaching evaluations, why are they continued to be used? If we know they disadvantage female academics then why keep them? Another study found that female lecturers are marked up if they conform to ‘female stereotypes’ such as care (linking back to care workload, point 3).

So you see, the UCU 4 fights are feminist issues, and all result in academia being a difficult at best, toxic at worst, place for women with dependants to work.

This is why I strike.

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