TL; DR: If you want to know how to support the campaign, skip to the end of the post.

How do you organise 5000 casual teachers contracted across 31 employers, none of which recognises UCU nor is part of national pay bargaining?

This is the question that lies at the heart of Justice4CollegeSupervisors, a campaign of Cambridge UCU demanding fair working conditions for supervisors of undergraduate students. Supervisions are small-group tutorials and are the backbone of the Cambridge undergraduate education. 90% of undergraduate supervisors are not on payroll - which means that only 10% of a total of around 5000 supervisors are properly contracted for the work they do. Half of supervisions are delivered by graduate students, post-docs, and other freelancers - who work as self-employed or with a zero-hours contract (if they are on a Tier4 visa). In a survey run by Cambridge UCU in 2018, 66% of supervisors stated that they spent at least three hours preparing for each hour of contact time. This means that once preparation is factored in, most supervisor end up earning less than 9 GBP/hour . Even though in certain subjects supervisions are organised by University departments, undergraduate supervisors are formally contracted by the 31 Cambridge Colleges. Undergraduate supervisors are formally line-managed by Directors of Studies (DoSes), who are then line-managed by Senior Tutors, who are responsible for overseeing academic and pastoral care within the 31 Cambridge Colleges. None of the Colleges recognise any trade union, which means that there are no established local mechanisms to bargain over pay or contractual terms and conditions.

The Cambridge branch of UCU represents members working for the University of Cambridge and the 31 Colleges. Justice4CollegeSupervisors developed over the span of five years to campaign over three main demands: paid training, fair pay, and secure contracts for undergraduate supervisors. The story of the campaign is a long one. And like many stories within UCU, it starts where almost everything started: the 2018 USS strikes.

2018-2019: developing an anti-casualisation claim

The 2018 USS strikes completely transformed Cambridge UCU. The branch doubled in size, and casualised workers gained prominence within its activist base. The end of the strikes also coincided with the first action of coordinated campaigning amongst PGRs in the History Faculty for fair teaching pay. The enthusiasm catalysed by the successful strikes was channelled into the development of a local anti-casualisation claim. The claim was grounded into a survey of hourly-paid teachers that ran in the fall 2018, and it demanded the University of Cambridge to improve the pay and conditions of casualised staff on a wide-range of issues, including undergraduate supervisions. The claim was lodged in November 2018, and in February 2019 the University agreed to constitute a sub-group of its Partnership Working Group (PWG) to discuss the different demands over the course of the calendar year.

Once the discussions in the meetings finally hit undergraduate supervisions, however, a wall came up: supervisions were the remit of the Colleges, not the University, and so the University could not materially affect pay, contracts or training for undergraduate supervisors. A representative from the Colleges had been invited to join these discussions too. After consultation amongst relevant intercollegiate committees, Cambridge UCU was told that the Colleges would consider raising supervision pay rates more linearly with the size of the student group. No progress was made on the demands regarding paid training or contracts.

It was at this point that it became clear that the structures of the Collegiate University worked against workers’ organising. At first sight, in fact, ‘Cambridge’ might seem like a homogenous entity. It is most definitely not. From an employment perspective, it is in reality a network of 32 separate legal entities – 1 University and 31 Colleges. Policy-wise, the Collegiate University is extremely heterogeneous. While the University is part of the national pay bargaining, the Colleges are not, and each of them decide their own pay scales and pay rises. Each of the 32 employers adopt their own set of HR policies, including different Grievance and Dignity at Work policies. Even though both the University and the Colleges are part of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), different employers in the Collegiate University apply different criteria as to which members of staff can enroll in USS: an assistant librarian in one of the Colleges might be able to pay into USS, while an assistant librarian in another College might not qualify for USS, and therefore might be placed into a different pension scheme. Even though the University of Cambridge did not recognize UCU in 2019, it had established mechanisms of consultation with the union that simply did not exist in the Colleges. Hence the question: how do you organise 5000 casual teachers contracted across 31 employers, none of which recognises UCU nor is part of national pay bargaining?

2019-2020: strategic alliances and power mapping

As a new academic year started, negotiations with the University over the rest of the anticasualisation claim progressed. As the months came by, however, it became clearer and clearer that the issue of undergraduate supervisions would have to be tackled as a standalone item. As the branch achieved a major win in the anticasualisation campaign with the University in December 2019, the campaign leads decided to immediately start a second campaign targeting the Colleges specifically. Such core group of casualised activists was predominantly composed by postdocs, but also by PGRs, in both the humanities and the social sciences. Despite us being all casualised, we were not all supervisors. Such campaign started via information gathering through FOI, as the decision-making structures determining the terms and conditions of undergraduate supervision labour remained mysterious - and without such knowledge, it was unclear where to apply pressure to advance the demands. Within a few days of the FOI requests being sent, a representative from the Colleges approached the two anti-casualisation officers of the branch offering to provide some of the information in a more structured and centralised way. Although many Colleges subsequently rejected or provided partial responses to the FOI requests, the main finding of such exercise was that Colleges could communicate amongst them pretty quickly and offer a centralised response to union pressure, despite being 31 separate legal entities.

In February 2020, the Graduate Union (GU) reached out to the branch asking for support building a proposal to gain paid training for PGRs who supervised, to be submitted to relevant intercollegiate committees tasked with setting standards for the supervision system. It then became apparent that the GU had deep knowledge of decision-making structures affecting the terms and conditions of undergraduate supervisors. Most importantly, the GU, unlike Cambridge UCU, had a guaranteed seat on some of these committees. The branch thus joined forces with the GU in building this proposal, thus laying the foundation for more steady GU-UCU collaboration. In early March 2020, the branch organised an open meeting of undergraduate supervisors where the three core demands of the campaign (paid training, fair pay and secure contracts) were debated and voted on.

Then the world seemed to end. Before mid March, COVID19 had become a tangible threat. As the country headed towards the first lockdown, the branch had to refocus its energies over health and safety priorities. The campaign was momentarily put on hold as the focus of casualised activists shifted towards supporting PGRs and early-career researchers organising to obtain funding extensions. Organising over such issues, however, strengthened the collaboration with the GU (that over the summer 2020 merged with the Cambridge Undergraduate Student Union to form the Cambridge Student Union - SU, from now on). Over the summer, regular catch up meetings were set up with the new sabbatical team of the SU. It was through such contacts that the branch got word that the Colleges had adopted, in July 2020, a new formula to calculate supervision pay rates that technically made the rate rise more linearly with the size of the student group taught. In reality, the formula only acknowledged one hour of contact time, 30 minutes of preparation time per supervision, and 20 minutes of marking per students (capped to a maximum of 4 students), taking an hourly rate of 17 GBP/hour. The rise in pay rate was almost imperceptible, and mainly cosmetic. The new proposal had been adopted without any consultation with Cambridge UCU.

2020-2021: creating Justice4CollegeSupervisors

In the summer 2020, the Colleges agreed to set up a working group tasked to hear and analyse the demands of the SU and Cambridge UCU regarding undergraduate supervisions. The working group included representatives from two key intercollegiate committees (the Bursars Commitee, and the Senior Tutors Committee), one representative from the University of Cambridge, as well as a sabbatical officer of the SU and reps from Cambridge UCU. At the same time as the meetings started taking place, Cambridge UCU started organising regular meetings of undergraduate supervisors to build an organising basis to sustain what seemed inevitable to become a long campaign. This coincided with Cambridge UCU sending the first cohort of members to Organizing4Power, the organising training sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and recommended by UCU to skill up its activist base.

The working group met five times over the course of 2020/21, and resulted into Cambridge UCU and the SU submitting three distinct proposals covering the three campaign demands to relevant intercollegiate committees. The SU was in charge of submitting and presenting the papers at relevant committees as Cambridge UCU did not have a seat on any of it. The Colleges rejected requests to allow Cambridge UCU representatives into the meetings - in one case, providing such rejection 25 minutes before the meeting started. In the meantime, the organising meetings worked on raising the campaign profile, which officially launched in April 2021 on social media as Justice4CollegeSupervisors. The campaign initially focused on social media work to socialise the demands and garner signatures from supervisors on a support petition. The petition travelled through social media as well as through branch infrastructures that had been set up at the time of the 2018 anti-casualisation claim. The petition slowly but surely recruited a further layer of activists into the organising meetings. Compared to the initial stages of the campaign, which was mostly led by postdocs – some of whom had become active in the union as PGRs – the newer activists were mostly PGRs in their second year of doctoral studies, who had just started or were about to start supervising. This allowed the campaign to expand and survive despite the inherent turnover determined by academic precarity. This period coincided with Cambridge UCU sending a second cohort of activists to Organizing4Power.

As the summer approached, it became obvious that the Colleges had rejected each of the demands jointly presented by the SU and Cambridge UCU. The branch had to FOI the University to actually get hold of the response of the relevant intercollegiate committees - as such response had not been formally communicated to us. The campaign thus moved towards raising its profile by developing press work. It is in this way that the Cambridge supervision system, and its gig economy conditions, became the centre of one of the most read articles on the Guardian in early October 2021.

2021-2022: organizing for power

The rejection of all the campaign demands by the Colleges, and the complete insensitivity to media pressure, made clear that winning required exponentially increasing the level of organisation amongst workers themselves. As the organising meetings in the fall 2021 increased in size, campaign WhatsApp groups were set up, and a campaign rally was organised during the 2021 December strikes on USS and the Four Fights. In January 2022, the campaign launched an action which prompted activists to get as many supervisors as possible to pledge their support for the campaign demands by signing a physical or digital postcard. In February 2022, a crowd of undergraduate supervisors delivered over 600 signed postcards to Old Schools - home to the HR division of the University of Cambridge - and Corpus Christi - where the secretary of the Senior Tutors Committee was based. Campaign leads then requested meetings with both the Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and representatives from the Colleges to discuss the campaign demands. Two separate meetings were organised. The meeting with College representatives was set up on Zoom under open table bargaining principle. Although open table bargaining is pretty unusual in the UK, some of the people active in the campaign had learnt about it through the Organizing4Power course. We therefore decided to trial it to see whether changing the balance of visibility in the meeting would break the stalemate in discussions with the Colleges, which had until then led to little progress. As the meeting was virtual, the set up was pretty simple, and any supervisor who wanted to join could do so via the Zoom link. The College representatives were clearly taken aback, and despite not committing to solving any of the demands, they committed to allow campaign leads to present the demands at a future Senior Tutor Committee meeting.

In the spring 2022, the campaign organisers devised a new escalatory strategy: the CAMCORS action. CAMCORS is the platform that undergraduate supervisors use to submit reports about student progress and, at the same time, claim payment. The action was simple, and consisted of organising supervisors to submit one complaint statement referring Justice4CollegeSupervisors at the end of their CAMCORS statement. The action bore a certain level of risk, insofar as it was initially unclear whether the Colleges had grounds to refuse payment, or whether the complaint statement might simply generate a delay in payment. The support structures set up during the postcard campaign and the weekly organising meetings, however, provided a platform to quickly troubleshoot problems if they arose, and gave individuals the confidence to go ahead. At the same time, the branch also developed a proper pay claim to submit to the Colleges detailing, once more, the campaign demands, and asking for proper consultation to be carried out over them. This all coincided with Cambridge UCU sending its third, and biggest, cohort to Organizing4Power. This meant that at this point most of the people active in the campaign and in the branch writ-large had received organising training.

In May 2022, the Senior Tutors Committee allowed three campaign representatives to present the campaign demands at one of their meetings, but refused to do so under open bargaining principles. They did, however, commit to record the meeting so that it could be made available to branch members to subsequently watch. A rally was organised in an iconic point of the city centre at the same time as the meeting, to make support visible even if not all members were not allowed in the room. The week after, the branch submitted - via the regional office - a pay claim to the 31 Colleges. As the end of term approached, Colleges started responding to the CAMCORS action: many (although not all) supervisors who had submitted complaint statements were requested to take them off, or their claim could not be processed for payment. Some Senior Tutors offered individual meetings to discuss the campaign demands. It was therefore clear that the chance that the campaign could become more visible to the eyes of students was a point of pressure that the Colleges were acutely sensitive to. Importantly, everybody who participated in the action was paid for their supervisions, even if some experienced a delay in payment.

Crucially, however, the Colleges did not directly respond at all to the pay claim submitted by the branch. Rather, in the summer 2022 the Office of Intercollegiate Services set up a Task and Finish Group ‘which identified and discussed where Colleges could lawfully act together’ over the demands presented over time by Cambridge UCU and the Cambridge SU. The Task and Finish Group reviewed various aspects of the supervision system, including carrying out data analysis that revealed that the system has a 24% average annual turnover. The Task and Finish Group, once more, did not include any representative from Cambridge UCU (and neither from the Cambridge SU). Such work did lead the Colleges to publish statements detailing expectations over supervisions and recommending the provision of contracts to high-load supervisors (with the caveat, though, that such contracts still remained zero hours). However, it did not lead to the discussion or indeed resolution of any of the three core campaign demands.

2022-2023: raising the stakes

As another academic year started, it seemed clear, once more, that winning any of our three demands required upping the game further. With the support of a volunteer organiser, the campaign developed an organising plan for the forthcoming academic year that established a series of disruptive actions to be pursued or replicated. The plan was attentive to what had or had not worked in the past, and to the need to carefully balance disruption with the acknowledgement that we could not engage in any form of work to rule without a ballot after the start of the academic year (since 10% of supervisors are, indeed, contracted as either workers or employees).

The campaign thus started, once more, with gathering signatures for an open letter, which was vital in recruiting new supervisors into the campaign. In little over a month, the open letter gathered 1200 campaign signatures. This revived organising basis allowed campaign organisers to relaunch the CAMCORS action in the autumn and winter 2022. During the three days of strike over the USS and Four Fights dispute in November 2022, a Justice4CollegeSupervisors rally was organised to deliver the open letter to the Office of Intercollegiate Services.

Shortly afterwards, the Colleges started showing a coordinated response to the CAMCORS action. Instructions were issued to line managers to systematically refuse reports containing campaign statements. The network of whispers active on Cambridge UCU side, however, allowed the campaign to prepare in response. Supervisors teaching for the same Colleges connected and provided unified responses to the Senior Tutors that made clear that the complaint statements would not be withdrawn until movement was made on the campaign demands. Shortly afterwards, the Office of Intercollegiate Services approached the Cambridge UCU PGR reps offering meetings to discuss the campaign demands.

Such meetings started convening in February 2023, with attendees on UCU side including representatives from different categories of supervisors and the UCU regional official. The group met four times between February and June 2023, and reviewed issues related to paid training, fair pay, and started exploratory conversations on contracts. At the second meeting, the two sides agreed to draft joint statements to communicate the progress of the discussions. It became apparent during the meetings that the Colleges seemed to be more significantly committed than they had been in the past: in the spring 2023, the Colleges approved a funding mechanism to finance paid training for undergraduate supervisors - which led to the campaign winning the first of its three demands after over four years of organising. Conversations over pay also showed an interest amongst the Colleges to understand how to align the supervision pay rate to industry standards, and to explore the possibility of conducting a joint survey of undergraduate supervisors with Cambridge UCU for the purpose of data gathering. The Office of Intercollegiate Services invited the campaign to submit a proposal on pay to the Bursars Business Committee. The retainer built into the proposal (which accounted for three hours of preparation for each hour of contact time) was however deemed too high and thus not financially viable by the committee, which refused to progress the proposal along.

Campaign organisers thus felt that making progress would necessitate, once more, of escalatory action. In mid July 2023, the branch approved the creation of a bespoken hardship fund for the Justice4CollegeSupervisors campaign. Shortly afterwards, the branch announced a boycott of undergraduate supervisions for the Fall term 2023. After the campaign announcement, the Colleges asked to postpone a meeting originally scheduled for the end of July 2023, as they needed more time to prepare a response to the boycott.

2023-2024: promising beginnings?

At the end of August 2023, the Colleges approached the branch again offering a meeting in September and seeking availability for a programme of work spanning over the following academic year to progress discussions on the campaign demands. On 29 August 2023, at a time when the local pressure of the national Marking and Assessment Boycott was still intensely perceived, the Colleges and the University communicated, via an all-staff email, that they were ‘committed to working with #J4CS members to put in place a programme of work to review the supervision system across the collegiate University’. The email went on to state that ‘The University Council has also agreed that the University and Colleges should seek collectively to address the issue of excessive workloads on both students and staff as a priority, which we know #J4CS support’. In early September, the Colleges forwarded the branch a detailed proposal for a plan of work to consider the campaign demands over the following year, with deadlines by which each demand would have to reach the relevant College or University committee for consideration. As the sign ups to the boycott grow throughout the Collegiate University, and UCU branches around the country donate to the boycott hardship fund, a crucial meeting between management and the branch has been scheduled for 18 September to discuss, once more, the two outstanding demands, as well as the resolution of the boycott.

18 September will be the day that will test five years of campaign organising. It is impossible to predict an outcome right now. But there are three main lessons to draw from this campaign already. First, organising hyper-casualised staff in the academic gig economy requires long-term vision. Challenging an educational and employment model that has sedimented over a span of 800 years is simply not something that can be achieved overnight – especially in a situation where the theory of the ‘small win’ does not seem to apply. Second, anti-casualisation work necessarily implies a plan to manage the inherent turnover of precarious activists. This has been achieved through subsequent actions of large-scale recruitment (i.e. through open letters and petitions), through the provision of mentoring from already active members of the campaign to newer recruits, and through the purposeful training of larger and larger layers of activists. Third, organising hard-to-reach workers required a modernisation of the structures and practices of organised action within the local UCU branch. Over the span of the campaign life, the branch has incorporated anti-casualisation and graduate representative positions into its executive committee structures. This mirrored a process whereby PGR-related issues became more prominent at the national union level, notably through the creation of the PGRs as Staff campaign. But most importantly, Justice4CollegeSupervisors has obliged the branch to think outside of the framework of ‘traditional’ industrial action to create forms of ‘demonstrative’ action that proved to be nonetheless very disruptive for the employers. It is this series of small disruptive actions that have led the campaign to a position of actually garnering power and shift the balance of power with the employers.

As the campaign continues, Cambridge undergraduate supervisors will need all the support that the labour movement can provide them as they lead the way in the fight against the academic gig economy. You can keep up to date with the campaign by following the Cambridge UCU Twitter account. If you want to donate to the Justice4CollegeSupervisors hardship fund, you can do so here:

Account name: J4CS Hardship Fund
A/C number: 20483649
Sort-code: 60-83-01


Lorena Gazzotti

Lorena Gazzotti is a Junior Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College and CRASSH, University of Cambridge. She has been active in the supervision campaign since 2018 and was, until recently, the Vice President of the Cambridge branch of UCU.