Intervention – “Fighting the Marketisation of UK Higher Education”

by David Featherstone and Olivia Mason

UCU members at the University of Glasgow, among other institutions, are currently taking part in five consecutive days of strike action, from Monday 21 March to Friday 25 March. Dave and Olivia wrote the following Intervention last week as a primer on the action for those outside the UK. As an act of solidarity, please read on and consider donating to the fighting fund:

Workers at 67 universities in the UK are currently involved in the third period of sustained industrial action since 2018. These three waves of strikes have been undertaken by members of the University College Union (UCU), which represents teaching, research and professional staff in higher education.[1] The dispute has involved 14 strike days in 2018, eight days in early 2019, 14 days in 2019/20, and 13 so far in this academic year, and is the first time the union has engaged in sustained strike action. Over the last year there have also been very significant local disputes in relation to redundancies in Leicester, at Goldsmiths, where a dispute in opposition to 52 redundancies is ongoing, and in Liverpool, where concerted action by the strike was successful in thwarting attempts to make 47 staff redundant.

There are different elements to the strikes, but they are underpinned by opposition to the intensifying marketisation of higher education in the UK. This has had severe consequences on conditions of work as well as shifting relations in universities to be shaped by narrow ideas of students as consumers which have been intensified by the approach of the current Conservative government. Longstanding issues of precarity and discriminatory environments in the sector have been exacerbated by a significant expansion of teaching and research without a corresponding rise in permanent jobs. These issues have also been contested by significant strike action elsewhere such as the 143-day-long strike in 2018 at York University in Canada. Lifting of the cap on student numbers has brought uneven increases in student enrolments across different courses, with over-recruitment in some generally more “prestigious” universities and loss of income in others – intensifying disparities within the sector.

The geography of the strike itself has been significantly impacted by new anti-trade union laws which were brought in by the Conservative government in 2016. This repressive legislation introduced requirements for a 50% threshold in a ballot for a strike to be legal, something which has led to a patchwork of institutions being able to participate in the action despite widespread majorities for support of the action within the institutions. For instance some institutions have 70-80% voting yes to strike action but a 49% turnout prevents strike action. The current strikes are centred around a pension dispute and UCU’s “four fights” campaign. The “four fights” dispute, which currently involves staff at 63 universities, demands “fair treatment for staff across the sector and a comprehensive remedy for the way in which … working conditions have been undermined over the past decade”.

First, this involves action against a derisory pay award of 1.5% in the annual round of negotiations, which given inflation is currently running at 5% and predicted to increase is a significant pay cut in real terms. This in the context of a longstanding attack on pay, with an estimated real terms cut of 20% since 2009. It is also happening in a context of extreme wage inequality within universities. University Vice Chancellors and Principals are typically awarding themselves significant pay increases, and currently average £269,000 per annum. They also represent just one part of the growth of a significant managerial “class” within universities, many of whom have little experience of higher education and are being brought in from the private sector, further evidencing the rise of private sector models being employed in UK university spaces.

Second, in related terms, the action is contesting the entrenched discriminatory landscape of UK higher education, particularly a substantial gender pay gap, and discriminatory pay experienced by BAME staff and staff with disabilities. The employers have refused to negotiate on these issues and the UCU has calculated that across the sector the “pay gap between Black and white staff is 17%. The disability pay gap is 9%. The mean gender pay gap is 15.1% and at the current rate of change it will not be closed for another 22 years”. A statement of support for the strike by the Decolonising Geography Educators Group has noted that, in circumstances where “a highly-paid managerial fraction within universities seeks to impose worsening conditions of work, pay, and pensions on a racialised, disable-ised, classed and gendered workforce, it becomes an imperative to defend the working conditions that would most benefit the young people in our classrooms in future”.

Third, the dispute is challenging the endemic casualisation which blights the lives of many workers in UK higher education, particularly, but not exclusively early-career staff. It is estimated that one-third of all academic staff – around 75,000 people – are on precarious contracts. Precarity is also directly entangled with inequalities relating to gender, “race” and disabilities. A report into casualisation at the University of Glasgow, for example, found that at the institution less than half of BAME staff are on the most secure type of contract, compared to approximately two-thirds of white staff.

The impact of casualised contracts on the working lives of staff has been emphasised by Olivia Mason and Nick Megoran who argued in a 2020 report that staff on casualised contracts experience their working lives as “second class citizens” in a number of key ways. These include being rendered invisible, left vulnerable to exploitative practices, denied academic freedom, and prevented from being able to plan a professional or personal life. The significant impact of the growth of casualised contracts in higher educations has also recently been recognised by a Joint International Labour Organisation–UNESCO Committee of Experts. They have concluded that this precarious labour market is undermining academic freedom, and have called on the UK government to “address growing employment insecurity among higher-education teaching personnel”.

Fourth, the union is also taking action over issues relating to “hazardous workloads” in the sector. There are a longstanding set of grievances in terms of workloads and the pressures that staff are under in UK higher education. Before the pandemic the UCU reported that four in five staff were struggling with workload. Workload pressures can be particularly acute for staff in professional services, many of whom are now working for outsourced providers. These issues have, however, been significantly exacerbated by the intense working conditions that are being experienced during the pandemic. In September 2021 over three-quarters of staff reported that issues such as the shift to online learning had led to an increase in workload, something which happened alongside the significant caring and broader demands of social reproduction associated with lockdowns. Increasing academic workloads alongside the increase in demands on staff on research contracts to publish and secure grant income, as a result of the UK Research Excellence Framework, are exacerbating workload pressures.

The strike also involves a long-running dispute in opposition to cuts and detrimental changes to the USS pension scheme. There have been concerted attacks on this pension scheme over the last few years. The 2018 strikes were partly successful in challenging these and pushing back against proposed cuts. There have, however, continued to be attacks on the scheme. The core elements of these are, firstly, significant cuts to the “defined benefit element” of the pension which leaves retirement income much more uncertain and up to the vagaries of the market. Secondly, an overall cut, which is hard to estimate precisely but for many is likely to be in the region of a third of their overall pension. Current estimates suggest that those at the start of their academic careers, only beginning to pay into the scheme, will lose 40% percent of their pension as a result of these proposed changes.

The most recent of these attacks is based on a contested valuation that was done in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, which unsurprisingly depicted an overly bleak prognosis. This has been used by USS and employers to construct a case for substantial cuts to the scheme despite the pension scheme itself having a very significant surplus. Because the USS pension only covers staff in some mainly older institutions this dispute involves staff at 44 universities. On Monday 21 February representatives of the employers voted down proposals from UCU to end this dispute, with an offer for modest increases in contributions by staff and universities. The supposedly independent chair of USS also voted alongside the employers. That many universities put extremely brief statements into the round of consultations over the union’s proposals in relation to pensions has further inflamed significant anger around the failure of the employers to take these proposals seriously.

The response of employers to both the “four fights” and pensions disputes has been an entrenched intransigence which indicates that this is going to be a long and difficult dispute. There have been particularly harsh responses from six universities which have threatened 100% pay deductions for staff involved in Action Short of a Strike which currently consists of working to contract and not rescheduling classes disrupted due to strike action. These institutions, the University of Bristol, the University of Bradford, City University of London, Manchester Metropolitan University, Newcastle University, and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), have had their position endorsed by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), but at the time of writing QMUL is the only institution still adopting this position.

The Chief Executive of UCEA, Raj Jethwa, has advised universities to cut 100% of staff pay for those participating in Action Short of a Strike, and argued that the institutions were “not only entitled, we think they’re compelled to do so. Students will be suffering as a result of this”. There has, however, contrary to Jethwa’s assertion, been strong support for the strikes from students on picket lines – and institutionally. The National Union of Students (NUS) called a joint day of action on 2 March to show solidarity with the strikes and reunite the student movement “to reimagine the broken system and build … [a] #NewVisionForEducation”. Students have their own reasons to be disillusioned with university management, particularly in relation to the ways they have been treated by university administrations during the pandemic, and at the time of writing they have been involved in occupations at nine separate universities. Students in demonstrations of solidarity with staff have frequently shown their awareness that staff working conditions are student learning conditions. Communication to students by senior university management in many institutions has shown little willingness to engage with their concerns and has put the blame on staff for compromising student wellbeing and learning conditions.

While influential authors such as Stefan Collini have made perceptive accounts of the shifting dynamics of UK universities, they have been wary of directly linking these changing dynamics with marketisation and political context.[2] As a result they have tended to appeal to a rather abstracted and de-politicised humanism, reproducing a rather aloof academic position. The recent strikes and the militant student movement opposing austerity and fee hikes in the early 2010s, however, emphasise the importance of shifting the terms of critical debate about labour in universities and the role of university educators.

As the dispute continues with another five days of strikes imminent, and with a likely assessment and marking boycott happening over the exam period, it is also necessary to think about how the dispute and pressure being exerted on employers can be broadened and developed. Key here is the importance of making links with other unions such as Unison, Unite, and the GMB, who represent workers in universities including those employed in catering and various support roles such as technicians, and who are facing similar and related issues. Thus on 2-3 March, Unison members at King’s College London took action to coincide with the UCU strikes and the NUS national day of action. This emphasises the importance of developing a concerted opposition to marketisation and its impacts.

A key practical way that folk can show their solidarity with these strikes is to donate to the following strike funds. These strike funds are particularly oriented towards supporting precarious workers during the dispute: and


Thanks to Diarmaid Kelliher, Hannah Schling and Marion Werner for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this Intervention.


[1] In this respect the UCU represents workers who would be defined as “faculty” and “staff” in university systems such as those in North America.

[2] See e.g. What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012) and Speaking of Universities (Verso, 2018).