Education Lecturer Joe Smith: “It’s about the next generation of researchers”

5 mins read

Dr Joe Smith is a History Education lecturer at the University of Stirling. He’s been a union member all his working life, first when he was a high school history teacher, and then he joined the University and College Union (UCU) when he took up lecturing in Stirling.

“It’s very easy if you are doing a job to feel alienated, disenchanted, isolated,” said Smith, “and what being in a trade union gives you is an opportunity to be with colleagues — people who do the same job — and realise that your experience isn’t unique, and because you have that kind of collective sense, it then allows you to resist.”

Action short of strike

This semester, outside of the strike days, UCU members are engaging in action short of a strike.

For Smith, this shouldn’t be a radical concept, it is just doing the job you are paid for: “If somebody asks you to work outside your hours, you say no. If you’ve said that you’ll teach two classes, and somebody asks you to teach a third, you say no.

“What is becoming increasingly apparent about action short of strike is the extent to which universities run on that little bit extra, and you can call it goodwill if you like or you can call it exploitation,” said Smith.

According to the UCU, university staff’s pay has fallen by 20% in real terms in the last 12 years because the pay offers didn’t keep up with inflation.

Smith has noticed that he has less and less disposable income each month: “Somebody who is a senior lecturer now is earning when adjusted for inflation what a lecturer would have earned 15 years ago.”

Pension dispute

What worries Smith even more than pay is pension. Last April, the pension scheme USS made changes to the pension contributions, resulting in a typical staff member losing 35% of their retirement income, according to the UCU.

Smith explained that before last April, he would get £660 in pension a year, so if he worked for 10 years, he’d get £6,600 when he retired.

“What happened in April was that changes were made so that the same year’s work would get me £470 instead of £660,” said Smith.

“They’re asking me to work another six and a half years to get the same pension that I would have done.”

The new rules only apply to pension payments made since April, so they won’t affect people a couple of years away from retirement as much as academics who are just starting.

“What this strike is about is not about me or my colleagues’ pension, it’s actually about the next generation of researchers — the people who are undergraduates now who aspire to a career in academia,” said Smith.

It’s about the future

“Compared to when I was an undergraduate student myself 20 years ago, the sector has changed beyond recognition, and principally underlying this has been the general trend towards marketisation,” said Smith, referring to the trend of UK universities being operated like businesses.

“A university is not a collection of buildings. It’s a collection of people, students, and workers,” said Smith, who views the worsening of working conditions as “an attempt to maximise income and to decrease expenditure”.

“This is actually a strike about the future of higher education and making this a sustainable sector that ordinary people can work in,” said Smith.

He believes that if this trend continues, “20 years from now, people from working class backgrounds won’t be able to afford to be academics.

“Academia will be a luxury occupation for people who don’t need a pension, who don’t need the wages to pay their mortgage.”

There are two things Smith says students need to know about the strike: in the immediate term, students will have fewer and fewer qualified lecturers because many will move to the private sector, where they can earn higher salaries, especially with expertise in engineering, medicine, law, and economics.

“The second thing that students need to know is if you have any aspiration to study further to work in a university, this dispute is actually about protecting that career for you.”

Featured image credit: Simi Borovska

+ posts

Fourth year journalism student at the University of Stirling and Brig's politics editor.

%d bloggers like this: