It’s informative to monitor the academic workers’ strike activities in the United Kingdom–not only because the UK often foreshadows upcoming trends in the States, but also because the associated student response introduces a sizable new threat to schools’ financial solvency. This pattern may play out at American schools in the near future.

First, background: in February, Britain’s University and College Union (UCU) declared a fourteen-day strike by its members. The union membership consists of over 42,000 academic workers–largely adjunct lecturers and research staff–and the strike affected 65 institutions.

The strike began in response to proposed changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), an enormous academic pension system with over £50 billion under management. Like many such pension schemes, the USS faces current and long-term deficits and has tried to improve its stability via both contribution increases and benefit reductions. For 2019, USS has proposed additional reductions in payouts, including elimination of defined benefits.

The strike reflects not only the workers’ opposition to these changes but also complaints about unfair pay, short-term contracts, and other labor woes familiar to adjunct academic staff everywhere. In spite of a series of negotiations and proposed agreements between UCU and an organization representing the universities, the unrest continues, with additional threats arising this week of more strikes.

The “Strike Live” section of UCU’s website captured updates on the February-March walkouts

Writing in Wired, Mark Graham, a professor participating in the strike, finds in this situation a foreshadowing of looming, broader labor strife in the midst of the “gig economy,” as global-scale outsourcing further reduces the leverage and compensation of individual workers (although, as Graham notes, university teaching is not well-suited to offshoring–yet.) Asserting “the importance of the current university strikes cannot be overstated,” Graham encourages a spirit of labor solidarity, saying the “vision of autonomous, self-interested individuals battling with each other for precarious jobs is one that we need to collectively resist.”

Macroeconomic concerns aside, however, the local, practical effects of interrupting campus operations pose a more immediate threat to individual universities.

The main victims of the strike have been the students, who lost access to instruction wherever a striking teacher was involved, and whose academic schedules were interrupted. For example, in some cases, exams and graduations had to be postponed. The Times estimates that over 1 million students have been affected so far.

And now it’s the students’ turn to complain, and, perhaps inspired by the aggressive actions of the UCU, to seek their own compensation and restitution.

The Times reports that over 5,000 students have joined a lawsuit against the schools which had limited operations during the strike period. Meanwhile, lots more students are getting in on the chance for a payout:

“Asserson, the law firm coordinating the claim, estimated that the 65 higher education institutions that were affected by the walkouts in February and March could have to pay out a total of £5 million – equivalent to about £1,000 per student involved in the action – and claimed that this figure could rise to £20 million. Five hundred students are joining the litigation each week via a website, the company said.”

On the plus side for the universities involved, they did save some money by not paying wages to striking workers during the walkout period. But with schools such as the University of Nottingham facing over 400 formal student complaints (and growing), the students’ lawsuits could result in a significant net financial loss for institutions.

How might this relate to the United States? The US does not have a counterpart organization to Britain’s UCU: organized labor in American universities varies according to state law as well as the public/private status of the institutions, resulting in less centralized affiliations among academic workers. It’s therefore more likely that strike activity in the US will occur on a local, individualized basis (although the collaborative tools of social media could still inspire parallel activities on a national scale).

Nevertheless, consider the current tone and context of American higher education:

  • Soaring tuition costs
  • Cuts in higher ed funding in many states
  • $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt
  • Increasing cynicism about the value and ROI of attending college
  • Growing tendency to regard students as victims
  • Commoditization of education through online and employer-sponsored degree programs
  • Disparity and resentment between adjunct teachers and tenured faculty
  • Shrinking of the college-age demographic (and corresponding decreases in admissions and revenues)

Within this unstable context, formal or informal walkouts by American academic workers are likely in the near future.

Consider the predicament, then, of any middle- or lower-tier institution which might already be struggling to maintain enrollments and financial stability: if any work-stoppage activity affects their daily classroom operations, we now have the additional precedent of student lawsuits to seek compensation for lost tuition and delayed employment. Do you think there are any class action lawyers in the US who might want in on this action?

In spite of their good intentions and best efforts, some of today’s American colleges and universities could be regarded as airplanes in precarious flight, facing strong headwinds, running on fumes, and guided by uncertain pilots. An ill-timed strike by academic workers could stall the engine, and expensive follow-up lawsuits by students could compound problems and trigger a whirling financial freefall.