Dezeen Magazine

UCU strike at UCL in 2020

Architecture and design tutors join UK university walkouts over pay and pensions

Architecture and design tutors and academics are participating in strikes across the UK this week over pension cuts, falling pay and poor working conditions at their universities.

The three-day strike, which began on Wednesday, is being led by University and College Union (UCU), which represents staff at institutions across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Among those to strike is Bartlett and Central Saint Martins teacher Tom Dyckhoff, who described his decision to walk out as "simple".

"If you were asked to accept worse working conditions, wouldn't you resist?" he asked on Instagram.

Walkouts result of UCU ballots

The walkouts follow two separate ballots, one on pensions and one on pay and working conditions, held by the UCU last month in which members at 58 institutions backed strike action.

UCU is demanding a £2,500 pay increase for its members, alongside an end to pension cuts, "pay injustice", zero-hours contracts and unmanageable workloads.

Among the 58 universities with architecture or design departments striking are University College London, the University of Sheffield, The University of Nottingham and Loughborough University, alongside the University of Edinburgh, Glasgow School of Art, The University of Manchester and the University of Brighton.

A picketer at the UCU strike
A picketer at the UCU strike. Photo is courtesy of the UCU

Dyckhoff told Dezeen that the working conditions of those in higher education have been worsening "slowly but persistently" for the past decade.

"Sometimes change creeps slowly but persistently, until the next thing you know, everything has altered all around you," he said.

"Pay has been cut by almost 20 per cent in real terms since 2009. Short-term employment contracts are becoming the norm, offering no security," he continued.

"The pay gap between white staff and BIPOC staff is 17 per cent, between able staff and those with disabilities nine per cent and the gender pay gap is more than 15 per cent. This has to stop."

The strikes over pensions respond to a recent valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – the pension fund used by university staff – which the UCU said was "flawed" and would lower members' guaranteed retirement income by 35 per cent.

According to the UCU, 76 per cent of members backed strike action in the pension ballot, while the ballot on the pay and working conditions saw 70 per cent of members back strike action.

The overall turnout for the pay and working conditions ballot was "the highest ever in a nationwide dispute over the issues".

Issues "not isolated to higher education"

For Dyckhoff, the hope is that the strikes may also inspire improvements in the working conditions for those in the design and architecture sector too.

"These issues are not isolated to higher education; low pay, overwork, short-term contracts, pay gaps are rife within the design and architecture sector too, habits learnt in part when studying in higher education," he said.

"Change the culture in one and perhaps you'll do the same in the other."

Other academic staff that have supported this week's walkouts include Toby Blackman, the BA Architecture programme director at Newcastle University. Blackman said "pay and pensions are two of four issues the UCU strike challenges", although he was unable to join the strikes himself because Newcastle University's branch of UCU did not meet the 50 per cent threshold of yes votes in the ballot for action.

"Pay (17.6 per cent fall against inflation since 2009, £8.71 lowest rate); casualisation (precarity & zero hour contracts); workload (4/5 struggling); inequality (15.1 per cent gender, 17 per cent black/white, 9 per cent disability pay gaps)," he wrote on Twitter.

"Academics are already leaving in droves"

Alice Moncaster, an Open University academic specialising in sustainable buildings and construction who joined the walkout, declared that "the strike is about the future of Higher Education in the UK, about our children's education, and ultimately the future of our country".

"Academics are already leaving in droves for other countries, or for jobs in industry, where they have better pay and treatment," she said.

Tom Wilkinson, an art historian at Birkbeck, University of London, also participated in the strikes.

"I'm on strike for the next 3 days because if UK academia makes me any more bitter I'll turn into a lime with googly eyes stuck on it," he jested.

The main photo is of UCU strikes at UCL in 2020, courtesy of Tom Dyckhoff.