Why I Strike: The UCU Strike and the Future of Science in the UK
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
As I write these words, the largest strike in UK higher education history is nearing its end. The UCU strike has mobilised tens of thousands of academics across the United Kingdom, from Orkney in the north to Plymouth in the south, from full professors, to humble first year postgraduates like myself. Officially, we are striking over five fights (though officially they are separated into two issues, pensions and everything else); pensions, falling pay, high workloads, casualisation of employment, and the gender and ethnic pay gap. But unofficially, we are fighting for the future of higher education, and by extension science, in the UK.
Talking to people outside academia, there is a perception that being an academic, and especially a scientist, is a cushy gig. Often, I have spoken to strangers asking why supposedly well-off people, like academics, who they believe have secure and well paid jobs, and holidays when the university isn’t in term time, would strike. If there ever was a time when that view was the reality in academia, neither I nor anyone I know remembers it. The reality of higher education in Britain today is that it an exploitative sector, with a few wealthy Vice Chancellors at the top while the rest of us labour away for their profit. That is to say, academia is a capitalist enterprise like any other.
The first, and from my perspective as a (very) early career scientist, most pressing issue facing academia today is the lack of jobs. Less than 2% of newly minted PhDs in the UK will ever hold a permanent position, and, despite exhortations from politicians and parents alike that getting a STEM degree makes career sense, this figure is equally bleak for PhDs in the sciences and the humanities. The vast majority of newly minted PhDs will either have to leave academia entirely, or take a series of insecure and low paid jobs as either postdocs or adjuncts, without any hope of every getting their career truly off the ground. So pervasive is the use of underpaid and overworked adjunct labour in UK universities that the majority of both teaching and research staff in the UK are now on short term contracts, having to apply to new positions as soon as they get their current position.
Even for the lucky few who get jobs, the situation is bad and getting worse. Academic salaries are well below what similarly highly educated jobs, like finance or medicine, would earn, and between teaching, grant writing, and useless administrative piffle, most academics scarcely find the time to do their research. Even when you do research, funding is so short that it is nearly impossible to do anything that isn’t fashionable or applied, and the pressure to publish is so great that any long term or in depth investigations, especially early on in a career, is discouraged. The situation is even worse for women of PoC in academia, who earn significantly less than their white male colleagues. All of this isn’t happening in a time of financial hardship for universities either; many are wealthier than they ever have been. But rather than passing on the extra money on to students or academics, they prefer to give it to ever higher vice-chancellor salaries, vainglorious building projects that no one wants, or greater number of (non-academic) administrators who, if anything, make the life of the mind harder.
Reading this you might be willing to ask, who cares? After all, the plight of academics is similar to the plight of other white collar workers seeing their labour reduced to blue collar conditions by the ruthless logic of capitalism. As Karl Marx figured out a century and a half ago in Das Kapital, those who do not directly earn their keep by capital will see their livelihoods reduced in order to increase capital accumulation for the bourgeoise, in a process termed proletarianization It is just certain cultural traits that have kept certain white collar professions, like academia, from feeling the brunt of this logic until the current late capitalist stage of development of the last few decades. But this does not mean that we have to accept the proletarianization of academia and science lying down—the entire premise of the trade union movement, and the Labour Party, is that these trends in capitalism can be ameliorated, if not outright abolished by the introduction of socialism, through democratic means. If you do not believe that, and believe that solidarity demands that workers always stand together in their fights against capital, then I do not know what you are doing in the Labour Party.
But beyond those general (and I would like to think clinching) arguments as to why this strike must succeed, there are some points peculiar to science and academia which we should consider in supporting this strike. Firstly, academia and science are meant to be different. They are supposed to be realms of free inquiry, where progress is made not despite, but because of, challenging orthodoxy. However much academia as an institution, and academics as individuals, have failed to reach this goal, that is what we should aspire to. Yet humans are corporal beings, and require something to sustain us that isn’t books and ideas, namely food. By making academia and science a career that is inaccessible to all but the very wealthy and secure, society is preventing this very ideal from being conceivable. It is reverting to a time when wealthy dilettantes ran science, and only their perspective mattered.
The experience of the last several decades show us the importance of many viewpoints, not just those of wealthy white men, doesn’t just make science more diverse—it makes it better. I know this from my own field, the study of same sex sexual behaviour in animals. For decades the social inclinations of straight wealthy scientists prevented us from recognising how pervasive it is in nature, and from studying it in a manner that went beyond trying to explain away “perversions”. The inclusion of queer people into biology has allowed for realm of animal behaviour to open up, and has shown itself to be full of interesting reams of inquiry.
There is also the benefit that science and academia provide to the rest of society. I will be frank; I think that many scientists think too highly of what we do. The most important members of society since the dawn of civilisation are and always will be farmers. But perhaps the second most important are applied scientists, who advance civilisation by creating the tools which have taken us from antiquity to today. The technologist does not work on their own but relies on basic research. This was done, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, at universities. With the universities as centres of research gone, and basic research funding gutted across the field, there is no telling what technological advances the 21st century will miss out on.
But perhaps the most poignant reason to support the strike is because it is in defence of knowledge itself. To know more about the universe, not just from the perspective of natural sciences, but of social sciences and humanities, is a good in and of itself. But in order to do this requires the sort of stable job conditions which UK universities are denying not just many starting academic careers, but those with established careers as well. Academics may push the boundaries of human knowledge in wonderous ways, but we are still human, and require a salary to pay the bills, a workload that doesn’t destroy us mentally and physically, and a pension to care for us in dotage. This for me is the greatest reason why I not only support the UCU strike, but participate in it—to defend the practice of science for both myself starting a career, and those who will hopefully come after me to have one as well. If we fail now, I do not know the exact shape British science will have in the coming decades, but I know it will be far worse than if we succeed.