Saturday, May 25Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

‘Strike while the iron is hot’: An inside account of the UCU strikes.

With another strike having just been announced on campus, many students are rightly concerned about the impact the strike will have on their degree. This is, after all, the third strike to occur since I joined the university, back in 2017. However, there is a reason for the chaos. There is always a motivation behind a cause. To help students better understand the reasons for many of their lecturers choosing not to attend lectures, Orbital have spoken to various members of staff about their reasons for striking.

The following article contains submissions from staff striking in the UCU dispute for pensions and working conditions. It was submitted to myself, with the interviewees choosing to remain anonymous or use a pseudonym under which to share their experiences in the hopes it will encourage further support and understanding from staff and students alike. 

What does casualisation of staff look like? 
What would you think if you found out your lecturer was only employed for ten months of the year? Or that your Librarian was on a zero-hours contract? Or your department administrator had their contract reduced to 0.4?

All of these things are an everyday occurrence at Royal Holloway. The statistics show that 62.6% of staff are on casual contracts (of that amount, roughly half on fixed-term contracts, the rest on hourly-paid or zero-hours). 

To give you an idea of the demands that precarious workplaces on staff members, we present four case studies. These are fictional, but all of them are based on real experiences of colleagues at RHUL. All names have been changed. 

Sarah, Physics, Teaching Assistant 

I provide seminars on two core courses. Per seminar, I am paid £37, which covers the hour of teaching on the seminar, as well as 90 minutes that includes all preparation and marking that may arise from the course. £37 per seminar. I am also required to attend the lecture that runs immediately before the seminar, but I am not paid for this. This means that, at minimum, the £37 actually covers 3 and a half hours of work – so, £10.50 an hour. 

I have never taught either course before, so my preparation includes all background reading, and preparing my own seminar materials. Last week, I spent half a day preparing my teaching. Call it 5 hours. That then means that my £37 had to cover 7 hours of work, meaning it was really £5.20 an hour. 

I live in London, so my travel costs me £16 for every journey. That means that as a profit, I received £21 in exchange for seven hours of work, or £3 an hour. I quit my old job so I could make time for teaching. I would have had three courses, but one was cancelled at the last minute owing to low numbers of student registrations. The third course would have meant that on one day a week, I would have taught two seminars, which would have given a small profit. Now all I have is £3 an hour. I can’t live on this. 

I worry that I can’t mark assignments in the time given to me; last time I did marking, I worked over double the amount of time that I actually claimed for. I felt I was supporting my students. 

Ben, Media Arts, Administrator 

I work on the admin front desk, answering queries from students and staff. My working hours are 10-4 each day, but I frequently start earlier and finish later, just to manage all the tasks that are expected of me. My managers are under a lot of pressure, so they pass a lot of demanding tasks to me, even though they’re not listed in my contract. 

My contract is for six months, subject to extension. My manager says that an extension looks likely, but they will only be able to confirm a few weeks before the end of my current contract. 

My position is only temporary, but school management hasn’t announced when they will be recruiting the permanent replacement (one rumour is that it might take years – but it might be in 3 months?) I do know that the post will be advertised at a higher pay grade, so I won’t be eligible to apply with my experience. I feel overworked and underappreciated. 

Catherine, Teaching Fellow, History 

I started at RHUL shortly after my PhD, on a 12-month teaching-only contract, full-time. I covered a huge amount of teaching – 60% of the first-year core courses – but I was happy to have a job. At the end of the contract, I was offered an extension for another 12 months, but at a 0.6 contract. I reluctantly accepted. 

Come the start of the new term, I discovered I had exactly the same amount of teaching – a 1.0 workload at 0.6 of the pay. My line manager told me that, as a non-research member of staff, my pay reflected the fact that I didn’t do any teaching in summer, but my contract ran from September to the end of August, including the summer period. 

I have taken a 40% pay cut, but with exactly the same amount of work as before. I tried to cover all my duties in only three days a week, but I couldn’t fit in all of the preparation for my teaching. I asked my line manager if I could take on a second job teaching elsewhere, but they said I had to work full-time hours during term time. 

I hope to get a job at another university, like a lecturing or research position, but my workload does not give me any time to write applications. 

I can’t manage like this. 

Angad, Visiting Lecturer, Earth Sciences 

I teach all lectures on a 10-week 2nd-year course, with 22 students. I have written all of the teaching and Moodle materials, including the handbook, and marked all of the coursework. For this, I am paid £2000 in total. Work for the course takes me, on average, two days a week. 

I am also teaching two different courses at two different Universities in the London area this term. I commute between the three different institutions. They pay me a similar amount for teaching their courses. In the time between September-December, I will have earnt just less than £6000 for working six days a week. 

I finished my PhD in 2015. Since then, I have worked at more than ten different universities. In that time I have earned, on average, £15,000 a year. 

I worry that with such little contact time, I can’t support my students as fully as I would like. I frequently sacrifice my evenings and Sundays to reply to their queries. 

Support Education, Demand Decasualisation! 

Do the above case studies surprise you? Support the UCU strike. Write to Paul Layzell and demand that he instruct the University’s representatives, UCEA, to take meaningful action against the casualisation of higher education. 

For more information, see the Royal Holloway UCU blog: