UCU’s eight days of strike action showed university managers that staff and students have had enough of marketised, managerialist higher education.

We have had enough of sky-high fees, extracted from indebted students, being diverted to flashy buildings, management pay and bureaucracy. We have had enough of 25-30% of teaching being done by colleagues on casualised contracts. We have had enough of our women and non-white colleagues being paid far less than male and white staff. We have had enough of real-terms pay and pension cuts, while the higher education sector is making a £1bn annual surplus and vice-chancellors pay themselves inflated salaries.

Our strikes won widespread support, from the National Union of Students, from Queen Mary Students Union, from the media (The Guardian called our action a “battle for the soul” of universities while the Financial Times called for an independent inquiry into the mishandling of USS), and from fellow working people, who honked out their support along Mile End Road.

And crucially our strikes brought UCEA and USS, the employers’ groups that deal with pay and conditions and pensions, back to the negotiating table. We now need to keep their feet to the fire, and convince them that they can’t simply stall and hope we will go away.

Reclaim the Weekend

Action Short of a Strike (ASOS) is a way to maintain the pressure on employers at no cost to you: in fact, you benefit, by clawing back the personal time that you are normally forced to donate to your employer.

ASOS means working to contract: only doing the hours for which you are paid. It means not taking on additional, voluntary tasks.

When specifying our hourly pay, QM HR assumes that we work 38 hours per week.[1] But, in reality, academics work on average 51 hours per week, with 29% working 55+ hours. That’s 13 hours extra per week: nearly two additional working days that we work, unpaid, every single week. Assuming 30 days annual leave per year (and how many of us actually take that much?), that’s 580 hours, or 13 working weeks, of unpaid labour, every year. That means that, for every three years and three months you work here, you “donate” a full year of unpaid labour to QMUL.

ASOS means saying: enough is enough.

  • Every hour of unpaid work you do is an hour the university does not pay someone else: the vast “reserve army” of PhD graduates and precariously employed colleagues, who could be given decent, secure employment.
  • Every hour of unpaid work you do degrades your physical and psychological health. Nationally, staff referrals to occupational health and counselling are up 64% and 77%, respectively. 
  • Every hour of unpaid work you do emboldens bullying managers to extract more and more from you, while they give you less and less. 44% of staff at QMUL witnessed bullying or harassment just last year. It’s time to say no to the bullies.

ASOS is not a soft option. For many years, university managers have exploited the good will of their employees: our willingness to sacrifice our own time and wellbeing for the good of our students and the pursuit of knowledge. Without this unpaid labour, universities will quickly grind to a halt. 

Work to Contract: Detailed Guidance

  • Read your contract terms and conditions to find out what you are legally required to do. If your contract does not specify working hours (academic contracts deliberately do not, to facilitate over-work), note that QMUL HR assumes a 38-hour week when calculating hourly pay rates.[1] In no case should anyone work over 48 hours per week unless they have voluntarily signed an opt-out from the European Working Time Directive. 
  • Work only the hours you are contracted to work. Think about how extra hours are extracted from you, and claw that time back. If you always start work early, come on time. If you eat your lunch at your desk, leave the office and take the break to which you are legally entitled. If you return to work after putting your kids to bed, don’t – put your feet up. If you work at the weekends, denying your loved ones the pleasure of your company, stop it: restore your work-life balance.
  • Do only the work you can fit into your contracted hours. Refuse to take on additional, voluntary (i.e. not specifically contractually-required) duties that would cause you to exceed these hours. That could involve, e.g. covering for colleagues, volunteering for open days and graduations, serving on a new committee, or refereeing for a journal.
  • The work WILL pile up, precisely because our workloads vastly exceed our contracted working hours. Let it pile up. That is the point. Keep your email auto-reply on, which will explain to colleagues and managers that you will not be able to work as much as before.[2] Remember, you are not refusing to do work, you are simply having to manage it within your contracted hours.
  • You will need to triage your work, attending to urgent and important matters first. Follow your contract for guidance. If your contract does not specify any priorities, you might consider the following prioritisation: 1) anything relating to health and safety, e.g. student welfare; 2) teaching and teaching-related duties; 3) research; 4) administration.
  • You cannot reject a “reasonable” management instruction to change your priorities, e.g. to get marking done. But this must result in the de-prioritisation of other work in order to contain your total workload within your contracted hours, and you should ask your manager to specify what work should be postponed instead. If you are not sure what constitutes a “reasonable” instruction, contact QMUCU.
  • Continue the solidarity built on the picket lines. Support each other. Be alert to any unreasonable pressure on colleagues undertaking ASOS to break from the industrial action. Share any concerns with your colleagues and QMUCU. 
  • If you are put under duress by a manager, don’t expose yourself to disciplinary action by refusing their demands. Ask the manager to put their instructions in writing and state you will comply under duress. Forward the instruction to QMUCU. Always report any bullying to us, and use the new “Report and Support” tool to report it to HR as well. UCU HQ states that they “will not hesitate to launch collective grievances or institute further industrial action in support of members who are bullied while taking part in lawful industrial action.”

For full ASOS guidance from UCU HQ, click here.


[1] QM HR specifies annual salaries and hourly rates here. Hourly rates are derived from the annual salary by assuming that 35 hours per week are worked over 52 weeks (35 x 52 = 1,820 hours; the annual salary divided by 1,820 = the stated hourly rate). However, QMUL allots 30 days annual leave for full-time employees, reducing the working year to 335 days. 1,820 hours spread over 335 days is 5.43 hours per day, or 38 hours per week.  

[2] Suggested email auto-response:

Please note that my capacity to respond to your email is likely to be severely impaired from 25 November to 4 December when UCU members at Queen Mary, along with dozens of other universities, will be taking strike action in response to: rising pension costs; declining pay; pay gaps relating to gender, ethnicity and disability; casualisation and precarity; and spiralling workloads. My availability will also be affected by Action Short of a Strike from 25.

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