Striking is how the light gets in

One of our former branch members wrote this incredibly powerful reflection on the three days of strike action taken in December 2021, and the transformative power that we are fighting to return to higher education. Thanks to them for sharing it with us, and thanks to everyone who is part of the fight to make higher education a transformative space once again.


Striking is how the light gets in. It reminds us of all the positive things about working in education, that there are people on the ground trying to circumvent ‘the system’ and do good work. It is at once exhausting and energising. These are not original thoughts by any means though, and many similar words have been written in the past, these are mine.

One specific encounter in the last three days has reminded me that education is special and worth fighting for on every level. I was in an online rally on Thursday, with some external guest speakers. One speaker was from a university currently in local dispute, in addition to our national one. He was reporting live, from the picket which felt so exciting, a moment from the ‘front line’ for those of use joining remotely. His name seemed vaguely familiar, which I suppose isn’t unusual these days. Social media in particular has widened the number of people I know by name only, but it gradually dawned on me that we had actually met in real life. A very long time ago, I used to be a teacher and this articulate and passionate speaker, eloquently talking about the local dispute, had been a shy introverted teenager in the very first GCSE History class that I taught. His memory of our encounter is likely different to mine, so I describe it below with this disclaimer, but this is how it showed itself to me.

Education has within its power to be transformative as well as being frustrating, and beaming out from a London picket, here was a reminder of both of those things. As well as being shy and introverted, the teenager I taught was also super-smart. I remember clearly, even back then, my frustration at a GCSE exam marking scheme that relied on hoop jumping and did not leave room for those able to think beyond it. I remember explaining, time after time, that while this or that answer was well-argued and ‘right’ it would be difficult for an examiner to award it any marks because it did not do what the mark scheme dictated. It felt like crushing the abilities of a very bright student, whilst at the same time trying to encourage him to jump through hoops in order to get through the exam. ‘It will be different once you’ve got through GCSE.’

I do not remember what grade that he got in the end, I suspect he did end up with an A and I do know that the whole of that class, bar one student, got a C or above. It was before the days of numbered grades and even before the advent of the A* it was so long ago! Based on the one, rather brief encounter with this teenager, now a lecturer at a university and active in his union branch, I’m so proud of what he has become. I can’t claim to take any credit for that at all, but as we stand in the same union, in the same dispute, on the same (virtual) picket, I am reminded that education has the power to transform all those who are involved in it. That early encounter with a bright student who was in danger of failing because of the way the system was constructed was transformative for me.

I did not last long in secondary education. Even in 2000, when I abandoned full-time teaching, the workload and constraints on creativity were stifling. Yet my whole ‘career’, such as it is, has been in education of one sort or another. Post-school teaching I was in museum education and for the past nearly ten years, in universities. All of these jobs have had a profound effect on me as a person, on my views and outlook, but it is through union membership and activism that these views and outlook have been cemented into my work. Imagine a university where metrics do not matter, where good work is properly funded regardless of how lucrative it is, where there is no REF, no imperative to chase grants with miniscule chances of success, where creativity, exploration and experimentation are enough. The conversations I have with colleagues now are not wildly different to those I had with that teenager. ‘Here is the system, it’s a bit broken, this is what we need to do to get around that and make it work in the best way we can.’ I know that many similar conversations take place everyday, up and down the country.

We fight for a sector where these conversations are no longer necessary and the last three days have reminded me of that. I’m tired, but standing both in person and virtually with colleagues on pickets, talking to them, and my encounter with the past remind me that education is always worth fighting for. I return to work energised by it, more determined to make a difference, in the same way that I was determined to make a difference in schools. I am more determined to fight on, with more strike action if necessary, for the higher education sector that we all want, need and deserve. I am reminded that the transformation of people is the goal of education. We all need a reminder of the light sometimes, and striking is how that light gets in.

Breaking the link between Language and Culture

Our thanks to the staff and students in the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) who contributed to this post, telling the story of how the University is forcing through changes to this programme that go against the best interests of staff, students, and this university. This decision, made by a small group of senior management with no expertise in language teaching, is not only having a detrimental impact on members of SLC and the Modern Language Teaching Centre (MLTC), but also staff and students in the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), and all 11 of the departments that have dual or single honours programmes with these departments. Central admissions staff were not consulted in making this decision, and the restructure has left professional services colleagues in these departments with uncertainty about the future of their jobs.

The stress that this process has created is unconscionable, but even worse, the damage that this decision will do to languages teaching at Sheffield cannot be overstated. Sheffield UCU is currently balloting to oppose this disastrous and unnecessary process, specifically University Management’s unwillingness to even guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of it. We ask all members to vote YES to Action Short of a Strike and to Strike Action on your ballot, and to return them today.

Breaking the link between Language and Culture

One Monday morning in February, twelve members of staff in the School of Languages and Cultures received an email from the Head of School telling them that they were to be transferred to the Modern Language Teaching Centre. Colleagues who had taught the rich mixture of languages and cultures associated with Catalan, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish – some for decades – learned that from September they would only be permitted to teach language courses.

The next day the rest of the staff in the School were informed, and it emerged that all staff had effectively been classified as somehow either specialists in ‘languages’ or in ‘cultures’, with no recognition of the fundamentally intertwined nature of language and culture that constitutes the heart of this type of degree all over the world. Decades of experience of researching and teaching language and cultures together were to be set aside, as university management sought its own ‘synergies’.

Staff in the Modern Languages Teaching Centre received a similar announcement, and joined with their SLC colleagues in pointing out that the proposed changes showed a total lack of understanding of the different expectations and modes of learning that characterise a cohort of linguists doing a languages degree and those who choose MLTC modules as an elective or a personal development activity. A very broad-brush example: a student taking a dual degree in German and History needs different language skills to be able to read, contextualise and analyse complex texts in German as compared to a Chemistry student taking a German language course in order to be able to work with a German company.

It’s a ‘broad-brush’ sketch, but it underpins the way languages are taught here at Sheffield and across Europe – and this has been wilfully disregarded in this reorganisation. Our colleagues in both departments have been dismayed to see attempts by university management to sow division by suggesting that staff in one department see their own methodologies and pedagogies as somehow ‘better’ than those in the other department. They’re not. They’re just different; and designed to cater to different cohorts of students.

An example is translation: in the MLTC translation is used to develop communicative skills, while in the SLC translation is treated as a specialist skill in itself, and a practical and theoretical base for postgraduate study and careers. Development of translation as a specialist focus has been encouraged by Faculty for several years now, as it fits with the University’s employability agenda, and feeds into the SLC’s Masters programmes in translation. For staff, the restructuring will have the bizarre and costly effect of stopping some highly experienced colleagues teaching translation, and asking others to hurriedly train up in a discipline that does not fit with their longstanding methodological expertise. For students, many of whom take two or even three languages, there is a clear threat of despecialisation.

Students have been demanding clear and detailed information on what all this means for their degree, and have consistently been told that ‘learning outcomes’ will not change. This is true in one sense – after intense lobbying by students and staff last semester, students have been promised that they will be offered instruction covering materials that correspond to the same CEFR levels as presently. But the CEFR scale, devised by the Council of Europe, only measures the “operational appropriation” of a language. Students will perhaps “operationally appropriate” a degree, but whether this will have the same standing and value as the languages and cultures degrees offered by other Russell Group universities has been thrown into doubt by this staggeringly ill-informed restructuring.

Formal declaration of trade dispute

As mandated by our members at our recent EGM, we have now entered into formal dispute with the University. Please see the declaration of dispute letter submitted to the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Koen Lamberts. The trade dispute is over:

    The decision to close the Archaeology department;
    The decision to restructure the School of Languages and Cultures, the School of East Asian studies, and the 12 dual and single honours partners impacted by this decision;
    The breach of the implied term of trust and confidence by the University in its failure to provide fair governance procedures for its decision making leading to (i) and (ii).

As we have discussed as a branch, points 1 and 2 fundamentally arise from the problems described in point 3. In this respect, the first step we have asked for is a fair and transparent independent barrister-led external review of the governance procedures that have led to these decisions. With full access to records, communications, and staff and student interviews, this should reveal where and how our governance processes are currently broken, and the steps which can be taken to fix them. During this review, we have asked for all actions related to the closure of the Archaeology department, and the continuation of the Future of Languages project, to be entirely halted.

We now await a response from the University. This is a simple, constructive and reasonable request that should help rebuild trust, getting management nearer to the “one University” goal. If they reject this request, we will proceed to a ballot for industrial action.

It is of special note our three other campus unions: Unison, UNITE and GMB were joint authors of the failure to agree letter and are also all exploring the next steps to escalate this dispute through indicative ballots etc within their own union framework. All staffside trade unions recognise the growing threat of the growing number of top-down flawed ‘change management processes’ which increasingly seem to run directly counter to the input and needs of staff and students in this community.

To join the Sheffield UCU dispute committee, please email us at

Calling Professional Services staff! Are you thinking of joining a union?

The following post was written by the founder of the SUCU PS members network and prior SUCU committee member Amy Ryall, with our thanks! Amy has since moved on to a new position at the Open University, but is now a representative on the National UCU Academic Related and Professional Services committee, which you can learn more about here.

Thinking of joining a union? Have some questions? Here’s a good place to start. Perhaps you’re interested because things aren’t going so well for you personally, or perhaps you’ve been looking around the sector for the last few months or years and wondering what on earth is going on. We’re all doing the same, but by joining UCU you can help to make a difference to our conditions and those of your colleagues and students. Unions work on collective action – the more members they have, the more effective they are.

Isn’t UCU ‘the lecturers’ union’?

No! It’s very definitely not. UCU is the union that acts most usually on behalf of staff at the University who are at Grade 6 and above. This is linked to negotiating agreements over benefits for staff at these grades. Membership is for all academic and academic-related and professional services staff. It might be though, that one of the other Unions has more members in your work area and that’s definitely something to consider when you’re thinking about joining one. . Sheffield UCU has a particularly strong Professional Services (PS) staff making up about 20% of the total membership, and the branch committee has a number of PS staff on it. To try and address issues affecting PS staff more effectively, we hold regular local Professional Services meetings, and at the UK level, Vicky Blake, the current UCU President, is a member of Professional Services staff at Leeds. Ignore what you read in the press or hear from colleagues, if you’re a PS member of staff who joins, you’ll be made very welcome.

Isn’t membership of a Union all about going on strike?

No! Though if you’re not a member, you may only become aware of the work of unions when strikes occur. Strikes are definitely part of union activity, but they are a last resort, when the normal day-to-day work of negotiation between employers and workers breaks down. They’re also less likely to happen if the union has a large membership. Employers are more likely to continue talks or come to an agreement if they think that a strike will involve a large number of the workforce and therefore be disruptive. A lot of work happens ‘behind the scenes’ and on behalf of all employees, whether they are union members or not. We have representatives involved in negotiations over terms and conditions, over pay, health and safety matters and many other aspects of the management and running of the University. You might remember the threat of Section 188 ‘fire and rehire’ last summer, which would have seen the terms and conditions of all staff at the University worsen. Negotiations by campus unions succeeded in getting the University to back down and rescind the threat. Union reps have been involved in weekly meetings about health and safety during the pandemic and they are currently working to support staff going through restructures, which are a type of ‘change management’ process. As a member, you’re entitled to individual support if you’re involved in a restructure and we also have caseworkers who support members to ensure they are being treated fairly if specific problems in the workplace arise.

What can I do?

To start with, you can become a member. A trade union is its members and we work together to make things better for everyone. You can benefit from this without being a member, but as a member, you can influence how things are done both at branch and UK level, not to mention bask in the knowledge that you’re doing something for the collective good. Learning how to advocate for yourself and your colleagues is also a benefit of being a member. By doing this, you can help actively improve your work situation. It can also help you to resist policies which might make conditions worse. Higher Education has come under increasing attack in recent years, with growing marketisation very difficult to resist and the ‘business’ of a university taking precedence over almost everything else. But together we can change this. In addition to the successful campaign against Section 188, we have successfully campaigned for the Graduate Teaching Assistant contract and for Saturday open days to be voluntary and compensated with time off in lieu. The national strikes of 2018 saved our defined benefit pension. Outside Sheffield, action taken by cleaners at the University of London’s six colleges has brought their employment back in house from being outsourced and a recent strike ballot at Brighton University was enough to make employers rescind their plan to make IT staff there redundant, without members having to actually strike. These successes do not happen unless members make them happen and the more members we have, the more effective we are and that’s good for everyone.

If you want to know more get in touch with We are happy to answer your personal questions, or talk to non-members from your workplace as a group. If you’re curious, please do join us, we’d love to meet you.

Our Ongoing Work to Reduce (and Ultimately Eliminate) Pay Gaps at Sheffield

Trade unions most often make big wins when we are willing to take collective action over issues that are important to our members. But we also do make incremental progress on a day to day level, sometimes in ways that aren’t fully obvious until some time has passed. This report shows how long-term behind-the-scenes work by your UCU reps is resulting in real change in policy and practice, and the ambition of the university to address inequality.

At Sheffield, relationships between recognised campus trade unions and management are structured by a recognition agreement [PDF], which sets out the normal frameworks for industrial relations locally and commits both us and university management to “an organisational system of employee relations that will be founded upon the key principles of; collaboration, team working, equal opportunities, transparency and mutual respect.” The agreement sets out systems for consultation and negotiation and resolving disputes, if they arise.

In March 2017, UCU joined with our fellow recognised campus trade unions UNISON and Unite to submit a joint claim to the university about its gender pay gap, which we noted then was unacceptable: “This pay discrimination is fundamentally unjust, and it can be bad for reputation, bad for staff morale; it could also mean that our University is potentially liable to equal pay and discrimination claims at employment tribunals/in the courts.” Our claim coincided with the introduction of mandatory statutory gender pay gap reporting – our view then was that simple reporting was not enough; action was also needed. That view has not changed in the four years since.

In March 2017, UCU joined with our fellow recognised campus trade unions UNISON and Unite to submit a joint claim to the university about its gender pay gap, which we noted then was unacceptable: “This pay discrimination is fundamentally unjust, and it can be bad for reputation, bad for staff morale; it could also mean that our University is potentially liable to equal pay and discrimination claims at employment tribunals/in the courts.” Our claim coincided with the introduction of mandatory statutory gender pay gap reporting – our view then was that simple reporting was not enough; action was also needed. That view has not changed in the four years since.

We acknowledged then that the University had made some progress on reducing the pay gap and that the reasons for continued disparity were complex. But we also called for an equal pay audit or review, joint analysis of the results and the development of an action plan to meaningfully tackle discrimination and inequality. To the university’s credit, senior staff engaged productively with this claim in line with the principles of our recognition agreement.

Over the interim four years, UCU reps have been working with colleagues from HR and from across the university on a Gender Pay Gap Working Group that has been analysing the gender pay gap and its complexities and reporting to the University Executive Board and Council, through its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. This has involved both the production of data to align with legislation, but also the creation of additional data aimed at understanding where there are particular issues around equal pay at Sheffield, along the lines of what we asked for in 2017.

What is now several years of data has revealed – perhaps unsurprisingly – that the overall pay gap persists because we have a disproportionate number of women working at lower grades and a disproportionate number of men at higher grades. Overall our pay gap has declined marginally since 2017.

The additional data we requested has also revealed particular issues at different pay grades, which aren’t always visible in the headline figures that government reporting requires. The data also backs up concerns our members regularly raise, including inequalities around academic, and particularly professorial, promotion processes; gendered differences in the levels that people are appointed to; access to and impact of maternity and other parental leave; the lack of a promotions pathway for professional services colleagues; and other factors.

Throughout the last four years, we have consistently argued that data reporting was insufficient without a concrete plan of action. We have also argued that a plan of action was pointless if it did not identify targets and develop mechanisms for progress towards those targets to be measured. This position was also supported by other members of the working group.

We are pleased that after four years of meetings and negotiation, at last December’s University Executive Board the university’s senior management agreed with the working group’s recommendations to commit to the eradication of the gender pay gap and to develop interim progress markers towards that end goal, against which we can hold the institution to account. The first of these is a 5% reduction in the gap by 2025, with annual reviews that will aim to accelerate movement towards that reduction target if possible. At UCU, we believe the university can move faster and will continue to push for the change necessary to do so.

The gender pay gap working group also had its work extended last year to address the ethnicity pay gap. We know that there are real issues of racial inequality at this university – the BAME staff network has been leading the charge on this to great effect and the establishment of a Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan in 2019 is a welcome development.

The pay gap working group has a role to play within this wider strategy, particularly through the interrogation of data and the development of similarly ambitious plans for addressing pay inequality on the basis of race and ethnicity. The group is currently asking similar questions we asked of the gender-related data. UCU reps on this working group are also conscious that there are different factors that influence this pay gap – for example, the university has a persistently low recruitment of Black British staff, particularly at higher grades. There are also complex ways in which race, ethnicity, nationality and migration status intersect.

We are proud that our branch led the fight for and won reimbursement of visa and ILR fees for international staff at Sheffield in 2017 and 2018, therefore reducing some of the additional costs borne by non-UK colleagues, but are conscious that there is much more work to be done to address racism, xenophobia and pay inequalities.

UCU will continue to work with our fellow campus trade unions and others across the university, to push senior management to take bold steps to set and enforce goals for combatting inequality and to make the University of Sheffield a fairer place to work. We very much welcome member involvement in this work – please do drop us an email at if you’d like to get involved. You can also read more about UCU’s UK-wide work on eradicating the gender pay gap here and in our 2021-22 pay claim, which retains pay inequality as a key part of our demands for UK-wide action across the sector.