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RCA UCU
RCA UCUCourtesy of the RCA UCU

Why are the Royal College of Art’s staff on strike?

We talk to the RCA’s branch of the UCU about their campaign for better working conditions and how the ‘unscrupulous’ employment practices of the institution dubbed ‘the Sports Direct of higher education’ are harming us all

Members of London’s Royal College of Art branch of the University and College Union are in the midst of a 14-day strike in response to impoverished and precarious working conditions. With 90% of staff engaged on ‘worker’ terms of employment –thereby being denied basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, or holiday time – the college has one of the country’s highest levels of casualisation (whereby the majority of their workforce are employed on a ‘casual’ basis). 

In 2019, their “unscrupulous” employment practices earned the RCA the moniker “the Sports Direct of higher education”. With their staff’s workload set to rise as two-year MAs are crammed into one 45-week year, and management refusing to offer the security of permanency to employees with less than four years ‘continuous service’, the situation hasn’t improved. 

While the supposedly “world-leading” RCA may be one of the worst offenders, their “long-standing miserly employment practices” are indicative of the wider problems of the gig economy which leaves many individuals in incredibly vulnerable positions. 

As the marketisation of higher education has increasingly led to universities and colleges being managed as profit-making entities, the RCA UCU’s fight is a paradigm for a systemic problem that’s effectively hurting everyone. The RCA UCA explain: “These employment practices affect us all. They create an environment in which people’s labour, knowledge, and experience are not fairly valued and the expectation that high levels of stress, mental, and physical ill-health, and overwork are the norm. In turn, and despite the best efforts of staff, this affects the environments and conditions in which students learn.”

In response to the strike, an RCA spokesperson shared the following statement Dazed: “We are disappointed by the UCU’s decision to strike, and we remain open to resuming negotiations. We are working hard to avert any disruption to the academic experience our students deserve as we return to campus life. We strongly reject the UCU’s claims that the College is damaging terms and conditions. We have made significant offers to the UCU to protect and enhance staff terms and conditions, address workload concerns, and decrease casualisation. We will continue to move forward by prioritising and protecting the academic experience of our students, whilst we work with the UCU and our staff to implement some important changes.” The added, “Colleagues on casual engagements represent 30% of our FTE (full-time equivalent) academic workforce, not the 90% quoted. We are also making good progress on equality and diversity, including our Anti-Racism Action Plan published in May this year and a £1m annual fund to support Black and African diaspora students.”

Below, we talk to the Royal College of Art branch of the University and College Union about the power of striking, how exclusory employment practices are detrimental to diversity, and how we can all help them set a precedent for meaningful change. 

Which groups are most adversely affected by the RCA’s detrimental employment policies? 

RCA UCU: There is no doubt that those amongst us already marginalised in society — by intersecting dynamics of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and more — are put into even more vulnerable positions by these employment practices. These working conditions act as real barriers to people from marginalised groups even considering taking up jobs in academia, which increasingly become the preserve of an already privileged few who can afford to work under these conditions. This is a vicious cycle. While these employment practices may appear simply ‘financial’ or related to ‘business needs’, they are constructed in a way that effectively excludes marginalised groups from building or even beginning careers in academia. 

By creating such a hostile and exclusionary working environment, the RCA is making us all poorer. We miss out on the richness of diversity of life-experience that fair working environments would support in academia. We miss out on the possibilities for innovation that would emerge if staff were not working in conditions of extreme stress. We miss out on so much that could be, and we know that it does not have to be this way. 

Why do you think the RCA has felt it necessary to try and tighten its belt at the expense of its teaching staff? 

RCA UCU: This situation is nothing new. The strikes are addressing a number of long-standing miserly employment practices that the RCA has built which are increasingly only recognisable in some of the most openly exploitative working environments in the country. These conditions are unacceptable in the Amazon work-houses and they are unacceptable at one of the most prestigious arts education institutions in the world. 

The ‘world-leading’ RCA can afford to employ staff properly. The astronomical fees which students face attest to this, as do the costly real estate projects the RCA is pursuing and the surpluses they regularly announce. However, the institution chooses to engage workers on terms that leave them with little to no basic employment rights: zero-hour contracts, no sick pay, parental leave or holiday time, no rights to redundancy and more. It chooses to create conditions of overwork, burnout, and high stress. These employment conditions are unsustainable, not fit for purpose and result in hostile environment higher education. 

It is important to see these conditions in the context of the wider marketisation of higher education. The introduction of student fees burst open the door to an ‘economy’ of higher education in which some see universities as profit-making entities, rather than institutions of learning, research, and care between generations. Unless we resist their most rapacious practices, as we are doing here, in the rush to generate a surplus from ‘university-businesses’ we stand to have our institutions asset-stripped of all the value they generate; both for the students and staff who work in them, and for the benefit they bring to society at large. 

“These working conditions act as real barriers to people from marginalised groups even considering taking up jobs in academia, which increasingly become the preserve of an already privileged few who can afford to work under these conditions” – RCA UCU

How does the RCA possibly expect its lecturers to meet the unsustainable levels of pressure it’s placing upon them? Have they yet responded to your complaints? 

RCA UCU: There has been correspondence and ACAS mediated negotiations between the union and RCA management. Despite significant compromise on the part of the union and some movement on the part of management, there have not been crucial guarantees that proposals as they currently stand will lead to actually ending casualisation. Without this, management has not demonstrated a true commitment to effectively addressing casualisation or the issues of equity, inclusion, or diversity that it entrenches. Similarly, management has not offered firm enough assurances on the issues of workloads that workers have raised. It is our firm conviction that we should not accept insufficient terms that fail to address the underlying issues that have led us here in the first place.

What action are you taking? 

RCA UCU: Members are currently on strike. This means that they withdraw all of their labour and are docked full pay for these days. The union has also called for a boycott of the RCA, asking all invited guests, speakers, and external examiners to refuse to cross physical or digital picket lines during the action. Staff are also undertaking Action Short of a Strike which means they will be working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action, not undertaking any voluntary activities, and enacting a marking and assessment boycott.

What are you hoping the outcome of the strike will be? 

RCA UCU: We know that our demands for fair employment terms and transparently managed workloads are completely feasible and can be quickly implemented. In July 2021, the Open University agreed to terms to end casual contracts for over 4000 lecturers and put them on fair employment terms, the likes of which RCA UCU is demanding here. We will continue fighting for this until all workers at the RCA are treated with respect and dignity at work. We do this for our own health as much as for the health of the institution. We do this so that generations-to-come of students and staff from all backgrounds can thrive at the RCA.

Does the situation at the RCA reflect what’s happening at universities and colleges nationwide? 

RCA UCU: Poor working and learning conditions are rife at universities and colleges nationwide. The RCA is a particularly bad example of these with some of the highest levels of casualisation in the country and shockingly high-stress levels among staff.  

In what ways could this set a precedent if you manage to have your demands met? 

RCA UCU: Conditions in higher education are at a crisis point. RCA management has a real opportunity to be world leaders in agreeing just and fair terms for staff at the College. This would be pioneering and innovative work, putting the institution at the forefront of meaningful action on social justice and welfare. Institutions are finding that ‘black squares’ are insufficient for undoing the violence, structural racism, and institutional foreclosure that is embedded in our society. Instead, they would do well to listen closely to staff and students who are willing to put in the work to demonstrate what real, meaningful change looks like and to demand it is enacted. 

The RCA and many universities want to employ people because they make groundbreaking, radical work based on theories of radical change, and promote the fact that they do this. However, it means nothing if those same people are ignored by those in management when they offer the institution the means to make that change in real terms within their own classrooms and structures.

“Institutions are finding that ‘black squares’ are insufficient for undoing the violence, structural racism, and institutional foreclosure that is embedded in our society” – RCA UCU

How can those of us outside of RCA best support you and other academic institutions facing similar problems? 

RCA UCU: Striking is hard and takes a physical, financial, and emotional toll. Donations to national and local UCU strike funds make a real difference to enable people in already financially precarious situations to exercise their right to strike. Donations can be made to the RCA UCU fund here

Helping us to get the word out about the strikes and supporting us on social media also helps hugely. Follow us and share our posts on Twitter, Weibo, and Instagram. Writing to RCA Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson, to the RCA’s Vice-Chancellor’s office, to MPs and the press to tell them you support striking staff, and tagging the RCA in your posts has a real impact. For students, coming down to picket lines to share your support with staff and engage with teach-outs is really meaningful.  

As discussed above, these problems are deeply connected with wider societal issues associated with profit-over-people logic. Becoming aware and actively engaged with struggles in our wider collective environment and also in your local community – from food banks to the housing crises, privatisation of the NHS, and so on – goes a long way towards undoing this vision of the world. 

It can often seem that as individuals we are powerless. Striking has shown us that when we work together we can redress this balance. Find – or build! – groups and causes that you support and get involved how you can. No action is too small… And remember all of this when it comes time to vote!