Striking staff have accused the Principal Dame Sally Mapstone of “hiding” and “abrogating her responsibility” in her response to the dispute which has led to the latest strikes in St Andrews. The Saint spoke to those on the picket lines Thursday 9 February in the second week of the 18 days of UCU strike action planned for February and March.
The strikes come after the rejection of a second pay offer by the UCEA, the body tasked by universities to negotiate with the UCU. The second offer would have given pay rises of 4-5 per cent with those earning less getting slightly more. This was rejected overwhelmingly by UCU members, with 80.4 per cent voting against accepting the offer. Following this vote, Jo Grady, the President of the UCU, responded to the UCEA saying, “our members have seen through your pleas of poverty as you sit on over £40bn of reserves”, and encouraged the UCEA to “get serious and make a proper offer — or get out of the way”.
The UCU are demanding a fair pay deal which matches inflation, the elimination of casualisation, and reform to their pensions. In their own words, the University of St Andrews continues to seek a solution that is “fair to staff and sustainable for institutions”. However, this was not enough for striking staff who told The Saint the University was “hiding” behind the national nature of the dispute. Chris Hooley, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics criticised the “boilerplate” statements from the University and urged the Principal to publicly back an improved pay offer for staff.
As The Saint interviewed those protesting outside the School of History, Lecturer Elena Romero-Passerin said the University had to do more for postgraduate students. She said that the University was “failing” postgraduates due to casualisation, and a lack of sick pay. A History PhD student on the picket line described how the inequality between the principal’s £260,000 salary and the precarity of postgraduates was a “disgrace”. This sense of inequality was only heightened by the fine view of the Principal’s house from St Katherine’s. The resounding message from staff was that they wanted the Principal to stand up for them.
Inequality at St Andrews itself was a theme among those striking, “the ultimate pay gap is between the principle and striking staff”, said Mike Arrowsmith from the picket line outside Edgecliffe. Here as well as pressing the demands of the national dispute, staff urged the University to “put its money where its mouth is on EDI and the gender pay gap”.
The length of the planned strike action has had a crippling effect on student’s tuition with some missing out on almost 40 per cent of their module’s contact hours. Chris Hooley said, “This isn’t fun”. He continued, “I know we say this a lot, but we really mean it, strike action is a last resort — it really is — it’s not desirable for anyone”.
The Student’s Association passed a motion supporting the current strike action in November. Nevertheless, fervent anti-strike opinion was found in a Spectator Online article written by a St Andrews student. This article described the strikes as “reckless selfishness”. Mike Arrowsmith responded to this allegation by saying, “If it’s reckless selfishness to fight for fair pay and against a decline in your living standards then I will wear that as a badge of honour”.
When it comes to St Andrews official position on the national dispute as Tom Jones, membership officer of the UCU in St Andrews told us, “we don’t know much, all we know is that they are seeking a ‘sustainable solution’ but we have never been told what that means”. He wanted to see the Principal “stand up for her staff” and use her position as convener of Universities Scotland and a board member of Universities UK to push for a better deal for those working at the University.
At the gates of St Mary’s College, the strikers from the School of Earth and Environmental Science claimed that the Principal was “abrogating her responsibility” and had to do more given her national platform. This being said, William McCarthy, Director of Teaching in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, had faith in the Principal telling The Saint, “the leader of this world leading institution is perfectly placed to lead the world leading staff of this leading University to a world leading resolution to this dispute”.
The mandate for the current round of strikes ends in April, but any new action following another ballot would include the very real possibility of a marking strike. Chris Hooley was keen to remind The Saint that the last proper settlement the UCU got from universities in 2006 was off the back of a marking boycott. St Andrews may see continued action throughout this year until a resolution is finally found to this long running dispute.
Photo: Universities Scotland