David Cocozza questions the effectiveness of lecturers’ strikes on campus.

On Thursday 23rd January 2014, Thursday 7th February, and most recently on 10th February, staff unions called upon its members to take part in a series of strikes under its campaign on ‘fair pay’ within the Higher Education (HE) sector. The dispute arises with the Universities and College Employers Association (UCEA) and its offer of a blanket 1% pay increase, with 4,000 staff in HE across the country being paid less than the Living Wage and ‘huge discrepancies’ between the highest paid staff members and the lowest paid – with that of the Vice Chancellor being 18 times higher than that of the lowest paid member.

Although it has been argued that it is not 100% representative of the views of our entire student body, Union Councillors recently voted in favour of supporting Kent’s staff on their strike action – support consisting of an awareness drive to students, leafleting as well as tea and coffee brought to the picket lines.

On the 23rd of January I took the lead on getting this ‘tea and coffee support’ to the picket line; however, when I turned up at 11.30am until 12 noon I only found two visible striking members and it later transpired that staff had, through a number of reasons including being affected by poor weather on campus, undertaken a walk-about and moved the picket line from outside the Registry Building to other locations separately. Unfortunately the communication was not there this time around, but it does raise the question as to how visible these strikes actually are on campus and their effectiveness if perhaps ‘more informed’ members of the student body still can’t even reach them?

Fortunately, it seems the most recent strike was very visible, with a number of my own housemates who had previously been unaware of the strikes even commenting on it to me. So, the message is actually increasing in numbers.

I managed to speak with two academic staff members on the, and their view was that the University is taking the perspective that the strikes are simply saving them money right now as they do not have to pay the striking staff members for the days when they undertake action. If the university is indeed taking this view, then perhaps the strike action is not as effective as it should be and is more passive-aggressive than anything.

The University of Kent’s financial accounts from 2012/13 show an operating surplus (i.e. money left over once income and expenditure have been taken into account) of £12.8million and a budgeted surplus of £4 million for 2013/14 due to new capital investment and other projects. Staff costs show as £106 million, or just above 50% of total income. The money is there to provide a larger percentage pay increase.

However, a blanket pay rise of 1% represents a huge proportion of the budgeted surplus each year – money which would be used to pay for new facilities, investment in current facilities and investment in teaching.

At what stage does this become a balancing act for both parties? Ensuring the student experience is enhanced through new facilities and that existing building structures continue to be fit for purpose, and attracting and retaining the best academic staff to ensure a high calibre education for its members?

NUS have called for a ‘speedy resolution to the ongoing pay dispute, and in such a way that provides a fair and sustainable settlement to higher education staff’ and it’s important that we act quickly to minimise future disruption. Strikes are becoming more frequent now, and I am certain the message for the reason of the strikes is being diluted as we continue.

Strikes are only effective when a large number of the academic body take up action and it causes very visible concern for the University; when it’s only 10 members of staff throughout the 1,000+ Kent has, the message doesn’t come across as strong as it could. And I believe that is where the issue lies. I am certain more than 10 staff believe in better pay conditions, but are not prepared to take strike action. This could be for a number of reasons, and especially if their desire to teach is more important than the money they earn; which is often the reason anyone goes into teaching.

Alex Murray, VP Education, is undertaking some fantastic work to ensure the campaign continues strong. His work thus includes creating videos with students showing support, blogging about the strikes and continuing to show support for them in person.

I just hope that support message filters through to students, so that everyone can take a balanced opinion on the matter.