Students back the UCU marking boycott. Image: Vimeo
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The student fight for all university staff to be paid a living wage

I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

This academic year, there has been a resurgence in student protests on campuses across the country. One key demand – voiced at the “cops off campus” protest in London in December 2013 and in a series of occupations – has been for all university staff to be paid a living wage, currently set at £8.80 an hour in London and £7.65 elsewhere. As a final-year student, about to enter the workplace, I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

The voices of students and staff are being ignored while tuition fees continue to rise and courses are closing. Last year, for example, 24 universities shut down all specialist language degrees.

Some of the lowest-paid university staff are on zero-hours contracts and earn the minimum wage of £6.31 an hour. At the same time, a survey of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading research universities, revealed that its vice-chancellors got an 8 per cent pay rise in 2012-2013, receiving an average of £318,500 last year (once pension payments are taken into consideration).

At the University of Birmingham, where I study, it took two occupations, two injunctions against students, five disciplinaries, five suspensions, several picket lines and a handful of court hearings before the university’s senior management grudgingly agreed that the living wage would be paid to all staff from August this year.

Despite this success, university staff have had a 13 per cent cut in pay in real terms since 2009. A marking boycott that was due to begin on 6 May was called off when staff were offered a 2 per cent pay rise for the next academic year. It had been organised by the University and College Union (UCU), which had initially demanded at least a 3.6 per cent rise from employers. The Times reported that some universities had warned staff that their pay would be docked by 100 per cent if they participated in the marking boycott. This could help explain why 84 per cent of UCU members voted to call off the boycott and accept a smaller increase, even though the 2 per cent pay rise will still leave staff wages declining in real terms.

It is important that staff know their students support them in their fight for fair pay. In true millennial fashion, students took to the internet to back the boycott. A YouTube clip called “UK Students Back UCU Marking Boycott” was circulated on Twitter under the hashtag #IBackTheBoycott. In the video, students outline the wider impact of wage disparity in higher education, including an increase in the gender pay gap and the extra strain placed on PhD students, which can lead to mental-health problems.

The living wage and a 2 per cent pay rise for staff are steps in the right direction but they are not enough. Students’ education will suffer if they are taught by overworked and underpaid staff. A few missed lectures or delays in getting essay marks back is a small price to pay.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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