Letter regarding USS strikes, a perspective from an Early Career Researcher

Today I broke the picket line, and delivered teaching to students, and tried to get on top of some work. This was driven in part due to personal reasons, and my current level of stress. I did not break the picket line lightly. In doing so, I wrote a letter to the heads of Imperial College (and copied in a few other senior figures). I reproduce my letter in full here.

Dear Professor Gast, Professor Stirling, and Ms Lindsay,

I am writing to briefly say that today I came into work today with the heaviest of hearts (and I felt sick when sending out two emails to my colleagues and students that I was going to break the picket line). My current status is mostly due to the lack of movement in regards to opening up discussions on our pensions, an apparent lack of understanding of why changes to the USS are critical, and finally the disconnect between the College respect for staff and the need to find a sustainable future for all of us.

I have to come into work because I have to sort out the final pieces on a CDT bid, where we will be articulating clearly why Imperial College London is a fit place for graduate students to learn, and to encourage them to be leaders of tomorrow both in academia and beyond. In the current climate, this feels hypocritical to write. This bid, as I am sure you are aware, would result in a likely ‘win’ of £5m of EPSRC contracts and a leveraging of (likely) £2m from Industry. This has required me to work for at least 6 days this year from 9am until 10pm+, with minimal ability to maintain a hold on other activities. I have also worked on three weekends for this bid alone. I am firmly working ‘out of contract’ when these hours are required of me, and due to tight timelines and overly burdensome processes within College, this has also cause me to incur personal stress, and in part I can see that these processes have resulted in extremely challenging working conditions for my colleagues too.

This one bid highlights how staff are willing to extend themselves above and beyond their current employ, for the better of our collective mission and to support the future of our profession. This might illustrate why the current college senior leadership, particularly in relation to the ASOS wording, the marketisation of our provision (especially in regards to provision of a tertiary education that is teaching, rather than education focussed), is galling at best. I would like to share that my Department, and many (but not all) senior colleagues have been supportive in these trying times.

As a result of this, and other matters, I am behind in sorting out issues with our current students and so the second reason I have come into college, is to support my MSc cohort. They are (understandably) stressed at present, and I am aware that due to pressures on my time (undertaking other activities, e.g. the CDT bid), I have not delivered on a core aspect of their curriculum, and I have been working to re-address this. Having spoken to many of our students, at a couple of dinners recently, is it abundantly clear that they are conflicted in that they support their academic staff who have given them so much time and support (with staff acting often above and beyond their contractual requirements), and yet our students are also tensioned with the risk that this action is placing upon their academic study. As such, I have come into work today, principally to reduce the stress that this delay in resolving issues has caused me (and to provide for my students), rather than in support of the wider College mission (which is clearly shared in the ultimate result of me breaking the picket line) because at present I am concerned that there is a lack of impetus in supporting a “duty to our staff”.

As an Early Career Academic, I can barely make a financial case to stay in London. I have incurred several years without sensible pay, given my level of qualification (in comparison to other paths I may have followed). This has been tensioned with an excellent chance to pursue my interests and I have followed this path because it is a job that I love. I enjoy interacting with bright students, uncovering new science, and supporting the translation of our activities into real-world engineering gains by our industrial partners. In part, I have been secure in the fact that I have not been able to save as much as many of my peers, who have followed alternative paths, because of the strength and comfort of my pensions benefit.

I welcome, and have emailed to express my support, for the College’s changing in position on the USS strike. I like the idea of an expert group, and I am sincerely hoping that these steps (that have been shared publicly) are being mirrored by leaps within the membership Universities of USS, and a strong position to encourage UUK to come back to the discussion board and collectively revaluate the position with regards to our Pensions.

I apologise for the length of this correspondence, especially as I am aware that you are likely receiving a range of emails from many parties. I have to also confess, that whilst I was heading back from Germany last week, I was in a position where I was sincerely considering the sustainability of an academic career at Imperial College.

I am sure I will see many of you formally at the PG graduation, and the awards dinner and lunch. Fingers crossed the climate has changed for the better by that time.