“I do not feel secure at all,” said Mattia Dossi, a third-year PhD student, on the picket line outside the University of Leeds on the first of three days of a strike by staff over pensions changes, low pay and precarious working conditions.
“The only thing I can do is to hope that I will get a postdoc or any kind of other position. It’s sad to say this, but I know that I’m not going to have a stable position for the next five to 10 years,” he said.
“There are days when I think that I should just stop my PhD and do something else,” Dossi confessed as he stood by a colleague holding a placard that read “Fair pay for fair work”.
An orchestra and dancers could also be found among the picket line, scattered across entrances to campus buildings, and there was a “running picket” jogging around the campus to keep warm. Staff and students sang the trade union anthem Solidarity Forever, as well as original lyrics set to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
“A career in academia was an aspiration for me for quite a long time, but not any more,” said Lewis Lockwood, a second-year law student. He said he had come to university hoping to research human rights, but had grown discouraged. “The more I talk to academics and I hear, essentially, horror stories about their working conditions, it just doesn’t make sense to me any more.”
Many of the academics on the picket lines said they now struggled to recommend academic career paths to their students, in light of pay cuts and the casualisation of early career contracts.
“I have to be honest with my students who are thinking about pursuing a PhD,” said Dr Kate Hardy, an associate professor at the university’s business school, who was taking part in the running picket. “I don’t want to pull the ladder up. But if you’re a woman and you want to have children, going into academia means you will face five to 10 years of temporary contracts, when you can’t make decisions about your life, your fertility, where you live.”
Mark Taylor-Batty, an associate professor in theatre studies, was standing with the rest of the picket orchestra singing “in the union, the mighty union” in a deep baritone. “Younger members of staff are facing between 40% and 80% cut on their pensions. We’ve done the math and we see that the approach that’s been taken is unjustified,” he said.
“It’s about people being on fixed-term and hourly pay contracts. They don’t know how they’re going to feed their families in six months’ time,” he added. “I know a member of staff here who’s been on repeated fixed-term contracts since 1994.”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, was met with cheers as she addressed the strikers.
“Members have shown a robust attitude in terms of how willing they are to take strike action to defend themselves,” Grady said, adding that she believed the industrial action would continue into next year if the workers demands were not met by Christmas.
Hardy said: “I will strike for as long as it takes, because no matter how much money I lose in strikes, I lose more out of my pension. It’s not even a choice really, to come on strike.”
There was support from undergraduates. Owen Reese-Hattersley, who is studying politics, said: “A lot of people have been saying the strike is really disruptive for students, but I would say that it’s a small price to pay. If the strikes are successful, we’re looking at far better working conditions for our lecturers and that means far better learning conditions for us.”
Dossi said that if he had the chance to go back in time, he would still pursue the same career path, despite the difficulties. “It’s something that I love,” he said. “But the things that I love about doing research are gradually being destroyed by a commercialised approach to education, which doesn’t reflect the values of what a university should transmit to society.”