Why university staff are still on strike

The Strike Diaries: Students can't graduate as the marking boycott leaves many in limbo, while September's freshers might be starting teacher-less. A 25-year-old lecturer, tutor and research assistant explains why.

British universities are revered on the international academic stage. Our institutions rank as the best in the world for subjects ranging from humanities to sports science, and they contribute around £95 billion to the UK economy.

But although MPs value them as financial assets, years of government cuts and increasing job insecurity for university staff has led to deteriorating standards of education, student dissatisfaction and staff burnout.

This year is the fifth consecutive year of higher education striking in protest at poor working conditions. And students are feeling the knock-on effects. While many were expecting to graduate this summer, the Higher Education Marketing and Assessment Boycott – meaning exams and papers have gone unmarked – has left them in limbo, with final grades pending across the country.

Students get it, though: the National Union of Students wrote an open letter in solidarity with the University and College Union, urging the University and College Employment Association to settle the dispute and end the boycott.

There’s only so much detail we can go into with the allotted 20 minutes we get to mark each essay”

But they’re still not listening. So, this month, the UCU announced that, unless employers return to the negotiating table, they’ll resume strike action at the start of the new academic year. Better pay is one of the main demands of UCU members. A survey of higher education staff found that over a third are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, while an increasing number are juggling multiple contracts to make ends meet. Meanwhile, vice chancellors continue to receive inflated salaries, with many earning over £500,000 a year.

Katie, 25, is one of those who worked multiple teaching roles to fund her PhD in English Literary Studies at Durham University. Based in the New Forest, between 2022 and 2023 she was a university lecturer, tutor and research assistant, working between Durham, Winchester and Bournemouth. That’s an 18-hour round trip. Most PhD researchers are funded to spend between 35 and 40 hours per week on their projects, but those without stipends are expected to do the same alongside financing their living costs and tuition fees.

As a member of the UCU, Katie took part in nationwide strikes in December, February and March. Here, she talks us through a week of term-time work, during which she spent 40 hours teaching and a 25 hours doing unpaid research, commuting 855 miles. She has since decided to leave Durham University.


I got up at 6am to arrive early at work so I can work on my thesis and prepare for my 9am seminar. At this university, I teach a mixture of creative writing and essay skills on a first year module. My students are fantastic and I adore the actual teaching itself, but I’m conscious that there’s a very wide range of abilities in some of my classes. Here, I’m only paid for the hours I spend leading seminars, so any time spent emailing my students after hours is on my own time.

I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2020 and I’m not that much older than those who took a few gap years, so I try to always approach teaching with the mindset of doing what would have been most helpful for me. But I’m realising that the sheer volume of students accepted on each course makes it impossible to give each person the time they deserve or need.

In between seminars, I work on my own research and finish off some marking. I’ve found it’s quite mentally taxing to be unfunded, knowing that my friends and colleagues are getting paid a salary and I’m not. While it’s of my own choosing to have undertaken an unfunded PhD, the further I am into my degree the more I learn that it’s a sector primarily dominated by people with the right kind of connections and exceptional family wealth. I wish I’d known this sooner.

I get home at 8pm and start preparing for tomorrow.


I’m only teaching for two hours today, but it still takes a lot of prep work. One of the hardest aspects of working like this is the amount of juggling I’m finding myself having to do. Before and after my seminar, I work on a short-term research project I’ve been paid to assist with.

The work is decently paid and I’m treated very well, but I’ve also noticed that Durham advertised a similar role that offered to pay $1000 worth of books for 50 hours work instead of cash. I’ve noticed this tends to be a bit of a thing in academia – some work is deemed worthy of payment, other work isn’t. The deciding mechanisms can sometimes feel very arbitrary, and nepotism can often be a big factor in deciding who the money goes to.

At the end of the day, one of my philosophy students emails me for a meeting to go over a past essay. I reply, telling them I’d be glad to, as there’s only so much detail we can go into with the allotted 20 minutes we get to mark each essay. They said they had no idea we were given so little time to mark.


I’m teaching four hours back-to-back today. It’s giving me time to catch up on two 8000-word journal articles I’m publishing – unpaid, of course – and general life admin, which includes chasing up missed pay.

Whilst Bournemouth and Winchester pay me generously, Durham pays me around a third of what the other universities pay me per hour. On top of that, Durham failed to pay me on time in August, September, October, November, April and June, all amidst a cost-of-living crisis. I’m fortunate to have multiple sources of income – writing, two other teaching jobs and one as a research assistant – but if I relied solely on the money I was owed by Durham during this period, I would have been completely unable to support myself. I’m not sure why this is the case, particularly given Durham’s reputation as an incredibly prestigious and wealthy institution.

By the end of the day, I’ve spent about four hours sending emails, communicating with my union and calculating what hours I haven’t been paid for. I get told that I will be paid the following pay cycle, with no adjustment for inflation.


I leave my house at 7am to arrive at another one of the universities I teach at. My third years started asking me about the forthcoming marking assessment boycott and what they can do to prevent it from taking place. As [all] our degrees were disrupted by Covid-19 and the strikes, I really understand how gutting this news must have been for them.

Online, I’ve seen a lot of other students suggest that their lecturers have been repeatedly reusing the same lecture slides for the past several years. It’s a valid concern to have, but the onus seems to be placed on lazy” lecturers refusing to update their material, as opposed to concerns that they’re so short of time they don’t get a chance to make new slides.

I don’t think some of them seem to understand that a lot of us – nearly half, in Cambridge’s case – are actually Postgraduate Researchers (PGR) themselves, and I think it’s something that’s been incredibly overlooked in the discourse surrounding the strikes. Permanent contracts are like gold dust in academia, so even those who aren’t PGRs are still incredibly precarious.

At a conference earlier in the year, one post-doctoral fellow at Cambridge mentioned to me that their salary is about £16k a year, and another at Oxford said theirs wasn’t that far off that figure. So, while the myth of the lazy, rich lecturer still looms large, it’s a very different reality for most of us.

By 3pm, I’m teaching a seminar at a different university. At 6pm, I get a train to travel 350 miles to Durham so I can teach two seminars the following day.


I wake up at 5am in Durham to start prepping for the day. As most of my research is fairly remote, living in Durham amidst a cost-of-living crisis felt fairly redundant, so I temporarily moved back in with my parents on the South Coast.

With a population of 48,000, Durham is a city too small to adequately house the vast majority of its student population and staff, and the housing sector in the city has only gotten more precarious since I started my PhD. Some of my students told me that they spent 14 hours camping outside of letting agents to find housing for the following year, even sleeping outside on the streets overnight. I’ve pre-emptively advised them to join a tenants’ union.

I leave Durham at 6pm, watching the city rush past me from the train. I’ve given my last seminar, so I don’t know when I’ll next be in the city. At 2am, I finally arrive back home and go straight to bed.

Why I went on strike

Equality is one component of UCU’s Four Fights campaign, and with very good reason. As a PGR, I can’t help but feel that our pleas aren’t always taken as seriously as they would be if we were fellows or professors.

I’m part of the Postgraduate Researchers as Staff campaign, which represents PGRs like myself, who are in a different position to internal staff. We do the same work as university staff, but we are not afforded the same recognition or pay because we’re students” at the same time. Speaking out can come at the cost of your entire professional life within academia, but staying silent can feel just as uncomfortable.

I also opted to leave Durham due to the culture. In writing extensively about the issues of sexual violence and misconduct in higher education over the years, I’ve heard so many horror stories that I’m not really sure what to do with all this information except listen. Whisper networks are probably the most useful mechanism that exist to protect both students and other staff, but passing information on to the wrong person can hold serious repercussions for your career. Things are rarely dealt with as they should be, particularly if it’s an accumulation of lower level incidents rather than a major one-off”.

I don’t know if I’ll have the gall to stomach working like this long-term, but I’m thankful there’s a vast number of impassioned and caring campaigners currently hard at work in the sector.

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