USS strike: why aren’t more administrative staff on picket lines?

Don’t blame university support staff for not joining the strike over pensions – it is because too often they are left out of the conversation, says Fiona Whelan

February 28, 2018
UCU picket sign
Source: Getty

Many university staff are not joining the picket lines that have formed at about half the UK’s universities this week.

There are a number of reasons for this. Financial precariousness is one, particularly for those staff on hourly paid or temporary contracts. However, another reason may be that they did not know that they were eligible to join the University and College Union because it failed to engage with them.

That is the fault of the union.

However, others may not join because they do not feel part of the conversation when the narrative has been that this is a “lecturers’ strike” and so their place is questioned.

Such staff should not be harangued for not participating because we have rarely felt included or valued in that narrative. However, imagine the impact on picket lines if they did include more academic-related, professional, support or technical staff?

Imagine the impact if the invisible machinery of the university began to grind to a halt? But that requires inclusion in the conversation from the outset and treating those staff as valued partners in delivering teaching and learning in higher education.

Academic-related, professional, technical and support staff are the invisible glue holding a university together and providing essential services to maintain the day-to-day running of complex institutions.

I have worked in a diverse range of roles within universities, including: strategic planning, library services, estate services, student welfare, and academic standards. Some of these were student-facing and some were more back-office.

How did we get to this position? It is not helped by the fact that the media often describe the Universities Superannuation Scheme as a “lecturers’ pension fund”. In truth, the USS pension scheme is available to all university staff who are eligible. This often relates to their grade within the institution, and many academic-related or professional services staff are thus enrolled within USS.

There is also the fallacy that the UCU is a lecturers’ union. This is a misconception among staff themselves who are often confused over eligibility of the UCU, or assume that the UCU is for academics and Unison is for other university staff.

UCU’s own website states that “whether you are an academic, lecturer, trainer, instructor, researcher, administrator, manager, computer staff, librarian or postgraduate from a university…UCU is the union for you”. Yet the widespread belief that the UCU is only for lecturers or academics is worrying, as evidenced by some references to #lecturerstrike on Twitter.

This myth points to a wider division in universities and the sense that administrative roles are valued less than academic ones. While we all collectively work towards excellence in teaching and research, it can sometimes feel like a thankless task. Too often, administrators are blamed when things go wrong but are rarely praised when things go well.

And too often they are overlooked in conversations that directly affect them. An hour-long talk on changes to the USS pensions at my institution focused on academic staff for almost the whole hour, despite many other types of staff being present.  

Such staff are neglected in the media because it is more difficult to understand the withdrawal of our labour in comparison to lecturers. If a lecturer strikes, students can immediately see the effect of cancelled lectures, seminars or tutorials. If other staff members strike, the effect is less visible but it is still felt.

We have simply grown accustomed to a culture within universities that overlooks this vital workforce: IT services, library services, student records, registry, student complaints, counselling, disability services, HR, development, estates, timetabling, finance, planning, and so much more.

We devalue these roles by describing them as non-academic. It is rare in other sectors to describe a workforce by what they are not, non-academic, rather than what they are. Language is important in determining whether staff feel included and valued.

The current strikes have thrown into sharp focus assumptions that universities are about lecturers and students, rather than the sum of their parts. As such, many staff have felt confused about their place in all of this.

Fiona Whelan works in professional services at Queen Mary University of London and was previously at the University of Oxford, where she also gained her doctorate. She writes about transitioning from PhD to university administration on her blog Beyond the Doctorate.

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Reader's comments (9)

Hi, Whilst I agree with Fiona on the importance of University support staff to the institutions, and agree that Universities could do more to appreciate their people, I have to disagree with the comments regarding UCU. At our University UCU participate in induction and training events and respond to all levels of colleagues in welcoming them to membership. I am an active member of UCU who works in an academic related role. I was on picket this week alongside many colleagues whose participation in strike action has far reaching consequences. If IT colleagues are on strike that can lead to cyber security issues, If finance colleagues strike there is the risk of unpaid bills and accounts with providers going on stop. If administration staff do not process grant funding documentation the funding may be delayed or lost. We should not underestimate the potential disruption from colleagues in support roles as part of the strike action. This strike has aligned staff across the sector towards a common goal of retaining a defined benefit pension scheme. We remain united under the excellent representation of UCU.
I agree with Fiona. Things need to change. As a 'non-academic' I attended a 'Raising The Bar' UCU meeting a couple of years ago. When I asked how I could participate to support ASOS I was told by a lecturer in a rather haughty tone that I "should just support the academics" and the meeting moved on... In fairness, our local UCU is now recognising that they need to work more closely with academic-related support staff and is proactively coming forward to make this happen. I'm sure things will get better but it could be a little late for the USS dispute. It isn't just the 'fault' of UCU though: the culture of universities has changed so much over recent times with much enforced separation of academics and support staff due to the introduction of modern business practices that have changed all of our roles. Many support people in universities are no longer working closely with academic colleagues but are out of sight in what are effectively 'call centre' environments.
I appreciate disagreement about the fault of UCU, who may well have been good in individual institutions about being inclusive towards all staff affected. However, I felt that the lead-up to the strike and subsequent coverage overly focused on lecturers. I wish that UCU would have taken a stronger public stance collectively to proactively state that this issue went beyond academics. As such, my criticism of UCU relates to their public communication as a whole, rather than the efforts of individual branches.
It would have been nice for UCU to allow a seat at the discussions with officers from other trades unions. Unite and Unison have members in USS, but both unions displayed unwillingness to take action due to the scheme 'belonging' to UCU. A real shame, as broadening the issue to all university staff would have much more of an impact. Also, UCU don't allow associate membership to members of Unite, which is disappointing in this case.
There are many other things wrong with the sector than worrying about pensions. A few plastic socialist profs suddenly lose some money and it's everyone out. No-one is striking over the extra hours worked by staff unsupported by management with broken promises on lectureships to come. Or the here take on yet another module as yet another person has left or the fill in the promotion application over Christmas etc etc . That's what's wrong and needs dealt with we will all be long dead of stress before we ever get our pensions.
I agree with most of what you say, but would actually go a bit further. I find the whole debate is around lecturers vs management. As a middle manager in a University I spend most of my time trying to get academics to do the jobs they should be doing, rather than what they want to do. There seems to be a very strong focus on most of the recent UCU messages about being anti-management, which as far as I can see is largely just because academics are being asked to do some work that isn't just their research.
"I spend most of my time trying to get academics to do the jobs they should be doing" ... is rather worrying. As a manager you are quite entitled to encourage academics to perform to their agreed contractural duties; but who are you to determine what they 'should' be doing??
but who are you to determine what they 'should' be doing?? - presumably someone who has responsibility for ensuring that Students receive value for money and determining that they are getting what they pay for. No one has the luxury of deciding which parts of their job they will or will not do.
Indeed Kate ... that is why I wrote 'agreed contractual duties' and that is why I used the word 'encourage'. You are also correct to write that students should be protected against what you hint at as poor professional practice. It's my view that this protection should also include those 'managerial' practices which undermine value added to students ... such as paying 'managers' outrageous salaries. I'm sure if you were to ask 100 students "what they pay for" you would get 100 different answers: so, how would YOU answer that question Kate??