By Iida Käyhkö
The neoliberal university has nothing to offer women: it may try to lure us in by putting on prominent display those women who have managed to break through the glass ceiling – but the shards continue to rain over the rest of us. The presence of women in university senior management is no consolation when those of us who are researchers or lecturers face poverty, sexual harassment and the expectation of labour performed for free and with a smile, and when students are treated as cash cows, holding up the entire higher education sector by taking on personal debt.
The UCU strike, starting on 22 February, is about more than just staff pensions – although we must be clear that pensions alone are reason enough, as staff are not only striking for their own pensions but for those of future academics too. Beyond pensions, this is a strike in opposition to the neoliberalisation of the UK higher education sector: precarious short-term contracts, low pay and an enduring gender pay gap.
The gender pay gap in higher education is 12 percent – and wider for women with children. Women with children are also more likely to work part time, which means they will get significantly lower pensions. Childcare at universities is unaffordable and the number of places provided is inadequate; in the UK more generally, childcare is some of the most expensive in Europe. Women among academic staff are expected to do the hidden, unpaid pastoral work of caring for students in the midst of a mental health crisis on campus. Assessment of academic output, such as the Research Excellence Framework, will continue to disadvantage women for as long as there is unequal distribution of domestic labour in the home.
Simultaneously, women are dealing with sexual harassment, assault and bullying in universities. The hierarchies of the university leave many students and early career academics afraid to report assault or harassment, or ignored and silenced when they do. Many universities will only take action on sexual assault if it has been reported to the police, raising the threshold ever higher for victims.
Women within higher education are often regarded as privileged – but many among us are women of colour, migrants, Muslims, working class, disabled, trans, sex workers, precariously employed, single mothers, lesbian or bi women, trans people experiencing misogyny, or nonbinary people. The ways in which we are oppressed in wider society follow us into higher education and marginalise us further.
On 8 March, one of the UCU strike days, and the day of the international women’s strike, women within higher education – students and staff – need to stand as a united front to fight for a safe place of work and study, for equal pay and career prospects, and for a higher education system free from the values of capital.
We strike for pensions, equal pay and career prospects, for stable contracts and decent wages. We strike from our waged labour – teaching, researching and marking. We strike from our unwaged labour – childcare, housework, emotional and pastoral labour. We strike to make our invisible labour visible. We strike for an end to our exploitation at the hands of a higher education sector that uses our work to call itself ‘world class’ and to benefit senior managers, and gives us nothing in return.
As students, we join picket lines and stand with our lecturers. We make it clear that their working conditions are our learning conditions. We are not their customers; we are not consumers despite attempts to frame us as such. Our fight to end sexual harassment on campus, to decolonise the curriculum, to access mental health services, to study without getting into debt, is part of the fight for fair working conditions for staff. On 8 March, we strike alongside our staff – for a university worth attending.
We strike together – and together we will win.