My university, King’s College London, sent an email to students about the planned staff strikes on 5 February, but there was very little detail. The email mentioned the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK) without any context and, while references to pensions were made, it failed to explain exactly what the strikes were about.
The strikes are occurring across 61 universities in the UK, starting today. As may be expected, students have been communicating via social media. One evening, I discussed, with a handful of students at other universities, the emails that we had received from our respective universities about the strike. I have spent the past week studying these emails and some webpages and discovered that many are similarly obscure. In the University of Exeter’s email, for example, the word “pension” isn’t even mentioned and appears instead on a FAQ page of the website.
The University of Edinburgh emailed students a link to a page on their website that contained similarly vague references to strikes and pensions along with hyperlinks to the UUK and UCU websites. In my opinion, the letters that I looked at from vice-chancellors, for the most part, utterly failed to explain the context of the strikes to students. The only purpose for these emails, it seems to me, is to attempt to turn students’ anger away from vice-chancellors and towards lecturers.
So, in light of little clarity, let me explain the situation very briefly. UUK has proposed a change to the pensions system for academic staff that would see each lecturer lose up to £10,000 a year (£200,000 across their entire retirement). Pensions would become dependent on movements in the stock market, so lecturers would just have to hope that there isn’t a crash the year they are due to retire.
Negotiations between the UCU and UUK that could have alleviated the financial damage for lecturers stalled in January, so members of the UCU voted to strike for 14 days over a four-week period.
Failing to mention the halt in negotiations in their emails to students seems to be a way for vice-chancellors to suggest that the decision to strike was not influenced by UUK and vice-chancellors.
I am a master’s student with only two semesters’ worth of teaching time during my entire degree. Over the course of the 14 strike days, I will lose a third of my seminars and lectures this semester. I am deeply upset to miss out on classes that I enjoy attending. But I understand why my lecturers are striking and I have no animosity towards any lecturer who chooses to strike.
As a result of the strikes, students at King’s and the University of Edinburgh, as well as students at other universities, have produced petitions demanding financial reimbursement. To me, this seems like a wise course of action, as it once again encourages us to debate whether students are consumers, lecturers are service providers and universities are businesses.
It is important to remember that we pay the university, not lecturers, for our education. The role of the executive board at each university (including vice-chancellors whose job is to ensure that their institutions run smoothly) is to make certain that students have adequate facilities to support their education. Part of that means that we have lecturers who are financially secure and able to work.
Removing the financial stability offered by the pensions system is effectively forcing lecturers to strike, which in turn affects the “service” that students receive.
So, what can students do in the face of these strikes? First, email your vice-chancellor. Encourage him/her to speak out against UUK and demand that they resume negotiations.
Second, although I don’t agree that students are customers, if we are to be treated in this way then so be it: demand that your tuition fees are refunded if the strikes occur, just as you would demand a refund for any other service provider. Also, sign a petition to help send a message that students expect compensation.
Third, join the picket line if there is one at your campus. There will be information on Facebook about where they are – a quick search of your university name and “UCU” will yield results – and if you can’t find it, email your tutors and your university’s UCU representative for more information.
However, be sure not to cross the picket line. This means avoiding going into university buildings on strike days. I’m aware that this is tricky because many of us need resources available only at universities. However, if you’re able to, avoid campus and gather any material that you need before the strikes start or on non-strike days, and work from home, cafes, pubs, etc.
Finally, tell your tutors that you support the strikes. Many don’t want to strike, they want to teach. Universities are attempting to exploit lecturers’ empathy and passion in order to get them to cross the picket line by emphasising “the effect [the strikes] will have on students”. Don’t let them use students in this way – ensure that your tutors know that you support them.
Yes, the strike will have an impact on our education. Without lectures and seminars, we’re at a disadvantage. However, we can take learning into our own hands. Read and study regardless, organise seminars off-campus and pool your collective knowledge.
Individually, we don’t have a say in the management of our university, but collectively we might.
The King’s College London student who submitted this article wishes to remain anonymous.