Students back striking staff as regulator highlights disruption

Undergraduates and postgraduates express sympathy for lecturers who have also struggled with shift online during pandemic

December 1, 2021
Source: Simon Baker

Lecturers were joined by PhD students, undergraduates and support staff on picket lines on the first of three days of strike action over pay and pensions at more than 50 UK universities.

The University and College Union claimed that “huge” numbers of staff and students had attended picket lines and demonstrations at 58 institutions where a mandate had been secured for action following ballots held this autumn. But employers said they had anticipated that the impact across the campuses involved would be “mixed” and added that “early reports” had indicated “low levels of disruption to teaching”.

At King’s College London, where a picket line “teach-out” and rally were held outside the university’s main campus, there were speeches from lecturers, support staff, early career researchers and students.

Many pushed back at claims that the action was unfair to students whose courses had already been hit hard by the pandemic, an argument reiterated by the chief executive of the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge, who called for universities to look at ways to mitigate any disruptions caused by the strikes, including considering fee refunds.

Pete Chonka, a lecturer in the digital humanities at King’s and UCU representative for his department, told Times Higher Education that “a lot of students have sympathy for what we’re trying to do and recognise that [our] working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

“If we’re overworked and underpaid and don’t have job security, it detracts from what we’re able to do for students in the classroom – and a large proportion of students get that message and understand.”

Alex Nightingale, an administrator at King’s and chair of the local Unison branch, a union that represents many university support workers, said in a speech that some staff had been “making themselves ill trying not to let their students down, and this is why it is so hurtful when people say that staff mustn’t take industrial action because of the student experience.

“Without the goodwill of the staff and all the extra time they put in, the student experience would not be what it is,” she said.

Students attending the picket line, and also those nearby, were also broadly supportive of the action.

Mauricio Fortuna, who has just graduated from a master’s course at King’s and who spoke at the teach-out in support of staff, told THE that there would always be a variety of opinions among students. The level of tuition fees in England also meant that it was sometimes “a lot harder for students to come out in support of the strikes when they see it as money that they’re losing”.

But if anything, he continued, the tough experience faced by students during the pandemic had given them more empathy for staff because of the struggles they had also faced in shifting to online learning.

“We had the staff working as hard as they ever have but still not supported enough, and at the same time students went through the same thing. Anyone who had to prepare themselves for teaching online, for both students and staff, knew that we were all completely overburdened,” he said.

Two second-year King’s undergraduates outside the institution’s entrance nearby made similar points.

“Personally, I agree with it…in the sense that they are not paid for the hours they work. Most undergraduates agree that seminar leaders work really hard and don’t get enough credit for what they do,” said one, who identified herself only as Bella.

She added that although the action did not have great timing because of the work students had to complete, striking staff were still going out of their way to offer help by email and online.

“They appreciate the fact they have got to strike against the leadership, but…they don’t want us to miss out,” Bella added.

Her fellow student Tilly said it was “hard that they keep having to do the same strikes to make the same point. I think it is time for universities to take proper action,” adding that “I feel like they went through a similar thing” with Covid. “It’s hard to teach online.”

The action, which lasts until 3 December, could be followed up in the new year with more strikes, a prospect that UCU general secretary Jo Grady said was “very real” if managers didn’t “wake up and address the very modest demands of staff”.

But Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that while it respected “employees’ right to take action”, it was “unrealistic and misleading” for the UCU to ask members at some institutions to lose pay in pursuit of an “unrealistic” pay demand.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

There are big claims being made - but what I have seen are consolidated picket lines (breaking all striking guidelines) and small groups of organised extreme activist students jumping on the band wagon and tweeting to an audience of themselves. They see this as an opportunity to target the institutions they are unconditionally at war with. Language like 'Scabs' has been directed to other lower paid union members (who aren't on strike) . So while social media allows some flexing form these small groups, they are still marginalised groups, but not really doing anyone any favours. The issues are real but 1970s styled demos like this are a little pathetic when more inventive and consistent ways of publicising the struggle can be deployed. Ultimately the lives of other staff are being affected and disrupted, as is the learning experience of some students, especially those studying for January exams. We have to recall that these groups were also on strike during the WEEK that lockdown started in 2020 and refused to suspend or call it off (but then expected 18 months of full pay and employment protection from Universities whilst for a large part, sat at home).
I am an overworked burnt out academic who is “on strike” but still working 12hour days as work load is massive , constantly growing….and it will still be there next week after the strike. I answer emails from distressed students, supervise project students and undergraduate students, work on two grant for which the deadline is next week, do huge amount of admin with no support. And feel guilty that I am not on the picket line.
It's not so much the pay, it's partly the ongoing steady precariatarisation, and the concomitant insecurity, but the biggest factor is the relenltess rise in paperwork for everything from claiming/getting a grant to visiting the toilet (yep that must be coming soon, a H&S exercise, planned visit times, log of how much water you used, who else was in there, were they traumatised, etc etc....). Why have we allowed HR and creeping maganerialism to vastly raise the paperwork burden, albeit gradually like the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pan of water? We are spending most of our time filling in reports and forms about what we do, more than actually doing any of it If the supposedly best qualified and moist intelligent cohort of workers on the planert can't stop this process, what hope for the other 99.9% of worker-drones (yes that's what we'll soon be, but on somewhat lower pay than the private sector)?

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