Strikes 'certainly made an impact' says Kent's UCU Vice-President

Image courtesy of: Alejandro Javierre

Almost two months after the strike that hit universities across the United Kingdom, InQuire spoke with Dr Philip Cunliffe, senior lecturer in International Conflict at the School of Politics and International Relations, and Vice-President of Kent’s UCU Branch. In November and December 2019, the University of Kent was among the 60 universities hit by a wave of strike action from the University and College Union (UCU) staff. The strike lasted a week, during which striking staff cancelled all classes and other related activities, such as office hours and replying to e-mails. The dispute, surrounding working conditions and equal pay, and changes made to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) , happened at a national level and is estimated to have affected more than a million students. “I was impressed and proud by seeing the extent of support for the strike from both colleagues and students,” Dr Cunliffe told InQuire. “Based on the students that I interacted with leading up to and during the industrial action, I believe that they were overwhelmingly sympathetic towards [the strike] and frequently strongly supportive of academics and professional services staff going on strike. I think that most of them understood that striking is a last resort, and that students are not the target of the action.” He also stated that the strike “certainly made an impact”.

Communication with management

InQuire then touched on the topic of whether the striking staff felt heard and whether they met up with university representatives to discuss the contentious points that led up to the strike. “The union has multiple channels through which it engages with management here at the University of Kent. However, the strike is a national dispute so ultimately it has to be resolved at the national level, through national negotiations, not between the local branch and the management here at Kent,” Dr Cunliffe added. Despite “the University [being] certainly sympathetic to some of our demands”, as Dr Cunliffe put it, he also stressed that resolving the issue will not simply happen at Kent’s level, and that “it is up to the university management effectively to impress their views on their national representatives, the University and College Employers’ Association (UCEA)”. “Thus far, UCEA seems to have moved very little in committing to negotiations on the questions of equalities, working conditions, and pay,” Dr Cunliffe stated. “It does not seem to me to be demanding a great deal of university employers to ask them merely to commit to serious negotiations on these matters, and to make a more generous pay offer, given the hit that academics have taken to their pay packet over the last ten years.” Indeed, UCEA found that staff pay dropped around 17% in real terms since 2009. “Industrial action could have been entirely avoided had they shown more willingness to negotiate, sooner,” Cunliffe went on to explain. “If they don’t move further in negotiations, then further industrial action is likely.” While dates have been set up in January for UCU to discuss disputes surrounding changes made to the University Superannuation Scheme, which was not an official point of contention here at Kent, no further information has been released regarding further strike action surrounding working conditions and equal pay. A public forum with the University of Kent’s Vice-Chancellor, Karen Cox, will be held by UCU at the Canterbury Campus on Friday 24 January.