University Lecturer Strikes–and Perverse Incentives

As a master’s student at UCL, I recently learned that there will be 18 days of strikes by professors over a variety of issues between now and 22 March.  For me personally, this means that out of the 12 classes I have remaining this term, 50% will probably be cancelled due to strikes. This does not take into account classes which will be cancelled as a result of rail strikes and professors’ inabilities to get to the classroom.  Before continuing, I should make clear that although I am saddened by the impact on my learning, I fully support the teachers in their strike.

Recently a petition has been circulating among the students which seeks reimbursement to students for classes that they will be missing (500+ signatures!). Although I support this effort as well, for someone like me who is at the tail end of my career and academic life, it has fewer consequences than those with many decades still ahead of them. I also feel a particular sense of rage on behalf of foreign students who have forked out something like £28,000 for their education and have seen its value in actual terms decline sharply as a result of the strikes. This also damages the image of UK universities abroad—but alas this is the sort of medium to long term consequence that often gets ignored. 

It is possible that a few universities may pay compensation to students, and some have done so previously, but the amounts will be trivial—I heard of one university which paid roughly £4 per hour missed.  On that basis, I will get £24 for the classes I miss–ridiculous.  You will guess that the £16k I am paying for my master’s degree, as a UK resident and citizen, is costing far more than £4 per hour!

However, this situation has led me to reflect on comparisons with the private sector, where I have spent most of my life. Most firms suffer as a consequence of strikes because during work stoppages they are unable to manufacture the products or services which generate revenues.  Thus the strikes adversely impact their profitability.  As students, we pay up front for education, and in the event of strike we suffer, as do lecturers, but there is no concomitant reduction in the university’s revenues, apart from minor compensation a few pay out. In fact—and this is the key perversity—universities benefit financially when teachers go on strike—their wage bill falls. Therefore unlike in the private sector the impact of strikes not only fails to punish the employer but actually benefits them. The biggest losers are the students and their professors.  Furthermore, the entire academic experience is diminished, something I have felt deeply.

This is not dissimilar to the health sector where striking nurses, ambulance workers and others suffer directly from their decision to withhold their labour. Sadly patients endure serious hardships and tragically some may die as a result. Whereas students like me might be disheartened or inconvenienced by the negative impact on our education, this is nothing in comparison to the loss of a loved one as a result of industrial action. Anger and fear are inevitable consequences and unfortunately, these are sometimes targeted at those who strike.  Students rarely get angry with teachers, but they are certainly cross with the university—but are they at fault?  I feel the real culprit in both the educational and health field are the Government, who seem to get away with this and hide behind the university or the health entities who bear the brunt of the ill will.  This Government also offers absurd excuses such as “preventing inflation” (see this previous post for a discussion of this issue). I do wish there was some way that they could suffer directly as a result of their policies, but the existing incentive system does not accommodate this.  Instead they benefit, in having a reduced payroll burden, when health and education professionals strike in desperation over how their real pay has declined. 

I study democratic innovation.  I too wish that we could come up with an innovative way to restructure the incentive system so that this perversity did not exist.  Any ideas?

I hope and pray that come the next election this government pay the heavy price for its behaviour. Sadly, it will be nothing like the price that many others are being forced to pay.

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.

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