STANDING in the core of the picket line, a written sign in hand, Catherine shouts as loudly as the surrounding crowd. Wearing pink beanies – a sign of membership of the UCU, the UK’s university and college union – they are fighting for pay, greater pensions, and secure employment. 

In a town overwhelmed by the impact of its university, St Andrews is likewise persuaded by the staff’s strikers. By early March, the strikes spread from one location to throughout the town.

“You really couldn’t miss it,” says Catherine, a third-year undergraduate student. Empathetic towards staff wellbeing, she assisted in documenting and participating in the strikes in North Haugh and College Gate. “It sends a powerful message, in such a small town,”  she said.

But St Andrews is just one of 150 universities across the nation where staff are participating in industrial action. More than 70,000 staff have taken part in strikes this past year over disputes regarding pay, pensions and work conditions. Staff want permanent roles in an industry where 68% of research staff are in short-term contracts. They want higher wages, in line with inflation.

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In St Andrews, these strikes without headway result in increased tensions between the university and its branch of the UCU. 

“We’ve just had it confirmed that  St Andrews plans to deduct 50% for participation in the marking and assessment boycott”, the St Andrews UCU said on Facebook. Their distress is characterised by only one claim — in contrast to a dispute that is by and largely national, with little scope for local resolution: “It’s a real shame that they’ve decided on punitive local action”.  Staff are petitioning for national change and receiving a local reaction.

To UCU members, the university’s point is explicit – the move is an ironic response to those who put their jobs on the line for increased pay. But it is also seen  as provocational.

I’m with Sharon, an academic liaison for the University of St Andrews, as UCU uproar followed the pay deduction for those participating in the boycott. It was late April – the cusp of exam season – and the university library is quiet. Those still preparing for exams are few and far between. 

But the staff atmosphere is buoyant and sincere as employees work closely together. Sharon presents her knowledge from a position of professional seniority – 10 years at the university, and 23 in Scottish higher education. A member of the UCU for most of that time, she is quick with facts and passionate about the future of new employees.

“Yes, it is a national issue,” Sharon says. “We are unable to single-handedly change pay. The University of St Andrews is small but it has a high profile, we pack a big punch.

"The university has been very unwilling to really put its hand in, either in support or even against the staff. It just hasn’t been willing to put its cards on the table.  I think it’s quite disappointing, because St Andrews likes to  make noise.”

It is a leading university for sustainability policy and research. Consistently ranking in the top three universities in the UK, it is renowned for its quality of teaching. For staff, positive feedback comes despite a growing cost of living and decreased salaries.

Sharon says: “Ten years ago, I was worth more to the university than I am now, in spite of the 10 years of experience and contributions that I’ve made since. That’s quite hard to accept.”

And yet, amid boycotts students regardless strive for high marks, competing for futures and academic success. The marking and assessment boycott threatens a predicament where students do not graduate. Those who do, do so with estimated grades and unmarked coursework.

“It’s dangerous because employers may not know a real degree from an estimated one,” says Muireann O’Dwyer, a lecturer in the School  of International Relations.

Also a committee member for  the St Andrews UCU, O’Dwyer  is in close touch with UCU  decision-makers and fellow strikers. After the announcement regarding cut pay for those participating in the boycott, she claims staff have even more reason to strike. 

“People who were on the fence have said no, I’m doing it now because it’s just unacceptable to be treated like this by my employer,” she said. “It’s almost like bullying, but I think we’ll be able to stand up to it and I think it makes it all the more clear why we need to do what we’re doing.”

This perspective, where those striking for better pay are punished disproportionately, is upsetting to those consistently striking for change. “You are not spending 50% of your time marking exams,” Sharon says. “So suddenly, for some of that time, you are working  for free.”