'It is not all about pensions' - an interview with members of the Student-Staff Solidarity group

Comment Editor Ed Southgate interviews Kate Raison, 20, and Ruth Day, 18, from the Student-Staff Solidarity group about what they have been doing within the current UCU strike action

How many students are currently involved? Are you happy with the numbers, or would you like there to be more?

Kate (K): More students the better- always more staff!

Ruth (R): Also we'd like more staff though, as I think we only had a few active staff and it is meant to be student and staff solidarity!

K: I think we also need more undergrads. There's more postgrads, or at least active postgrads.

Is there a reason undergrads are less involved?

k: Attitude on campus is interesting. It's sort of apathetic, but it is hard to engage people in discussion that doesn't focus around fees around campus. I think that is a barrier at the moment. For example, last Wednesday I was sitting in the library and they were handing around leaflets, then I overheard two girls talking and they kind of looked at the leaflet and said 'do you think we'll get refunded for the strikes' and that ended the conversation.

So do you think students are more focused on the impact the strikes will have on them than the issue of pensions?

K: Yeah, and it is kind of rightly so. It is a natural thing to do, but I think we need to find a way to encourage students to be a bit more compassionate and to realise the wider issues at play because it's not all about pensions.

Can you say a bit more about that? What else is it about?

R: It's about the whole marketization of universities; universities have become almost like a consumer good. It is now something that you are buying into, so instead of universities all working together for the collective good of education and bettering our society, each institution is competing against each other to be the best and to rise up the league tables. We have become consumers and that it why students are asking for refunds. Instead of thinking 'I'm in it for the lecturers'.

K: I think also the issues we need to discuss is lecture working environments and admin staff, because it's not just the lecturers on strike - there are library staff too. We need to start considering how if your lecturers are overworked and underpaid, if they are unhappy then that is not going to give you a particularly good quality education. Even from a consumer point of view it is better for your tutors to be happy, well-rested and well-paid as that means you will get better teaching.

You talk about the wider issues of fees and marketization, but UCU say this is a strike about pensions. What would you say to those who argue that you are blowing this up into something more than it needs to be?

K: I'd say talk to lecturers; lecturers say a very similar thing. The reason they can't advertise it as anything other than a pension strike is because they can't go on strike over a general marketization of the University - it has to be a direct response to a working or contractual condition. So, the UCU are quite limited in what they can advertise and say, they have to strictly stick to pensions. I'd definitely encourage students to talk to lecturers and talk to your tutors, especially on Thursday and Friday when there is no strike day. Go talk to your striking tutors, go into their office, be like 'can you explain this to me'. Also at the rallies, lecturers speaks an they say it is not just about pensions, it is about working conditions; I was reading an article from a Cambridge professor who was saying these are the people who may just increase tuition fees to £30,000 as soon as the government let them. These are the people we are up against. This is why students should care, this is just the beginning

Talk to lecturers; lecturers say a very similar thing to us

So, it's a protest against all of that? Would you then say that the issue of pensions has been used as a way in to protest other issues?

K: I wouldn't say 'way in'...

R: It is a legitimate concern, it is a visible part of the wider fight.

K: The pension dispute in itself is completely legitimate. The talks have been going on for two years, just no one has heard of it so it feels like it has come completely out of the blue when it really hasn't.

This leads into one of my questions here, which is whether you think there is a lack of understanding amongst the student body over what the dispute is actually about?

R: Definitely.

K: A lack of information, a lack of understanding, and I think part of it is because it did feel like it sprung up.

R: I did a lot of leafletting and a lot of people didn't know there was a strike happening. It was only until we got an email from the Vice-Chancellor and an email from the Undergraduate Officer that people found out, but that only came one or two days before.

The pension strike is the visible part of a wider fight

On the topic of picket-lines, because you are picketing every university building - so the libraries, the SU etc. - I'm interested to know: does every building need to be picketed?

K: The University of Bristol is a city university, which makes it is really hard. For example, some halls are University buildings but we can't tell people not to go home obviously! We were talking just before you came, because it is a contentious issue; in general we'd say just don't cross the picket line if you don't have to, because every time you cross the picket line you undermine the strike. Avoid it, as much as possible.

There have been reports of students going into the library to do independent study and being called scabs; third year students, for instance, have been shouted down when going in to finish their dissertations. Do you think this helps create a positive attitude towards picket lines?

K: I have never heard any shouting over the picket lines. I don't know if you (Ruth) have?

R: No, it's all been friendly.

K: I know the chant 'I'd rather be a picket than a scab' came up a lot, but I think the other thing to bear in mind about that chant is that it is a really old chant. People need to try not to take those chants too personally.

But if they are being directed at you walking in to the library?

K: Personally, I don't think that is right. I don't think people should be shouted at over the picket line. I think people should be going up to people and being like 'before you go in, could I please have a conversation with you about why you crossing this picket line undermines the strike'.

Being approached on a picket line is perfectly fair, especially when you've got people out front and you are crossing that, you cannot expect to not have someone try to engage you. The best thing to do from both sides is to be able to speak and have a conversation about it; if at the end of that conversation, someone going into the library may be like 'oh okay I understand now, in that case I will go get my books out then leave and go to the coffee shop'.

I don't think people should be shouted at over the picket line

That's the other thing; yes, you need to write your dissertation - I've got a research project to do that is due in this term - but I can do most of that from home. You have Jstor, you can get the books out; if you don't like working from home, you can go to the public library. There are other places you can go that means your life does not have to grind to a halt.

Is it possible to be pro-strike and still attend lectures?

K: This is so hard! Yes, but it does also depend on what else you're doing. If you say your pro-strike but still go to Uni 9-5 every day as usual, you don't attend any rallies, you walk over picket lines every day and you still go to lectures, it is really hard to say that you are in support of the strike. But say you avoid uni completely but you go to one lecture a week still and you still go rallies then that is a different case. It's a balancing act and is very much on a person to person basis.

What is the best way to balance it?

R: I'd say miss the lectures you can miss, and you can catch them all up on replay, but if you have to go to something that is attendance monitored then you can go to that. You can go to your labs, you can go to your seminars but lectures where you can easily catch up don't go.

Wouldn't catching up on the lecture undermine not going though?

K: Watching it back on Replay means that you are not seen on campus. It is to do with how many bodies are around. And also, so you don't want to miss any of your lectures? Go to your lectures - there will be people who disagree with you but it is your decision as a student. Personally I will avoid the Uni as much as possible.

But you respect each student's individual right to go to their lectures?

R: Yeah

K: If you support the strike, go to the rally, go to the picket lines, support your lecturers. As we were going round with music and tea the other morning, some of the lecturers were almost in tears. Students don't get up for 9AMs; we managed to get up get out and support them.

R: It means a lot that students stand behind them. They feel bad that they are taking time from their education. When they see the campus empty, it shows them that they are winning.

What is the ideal outcome for these protests? What are you hoping to achieve?

K: The UCU want a contract that is viable for staff. At the moment it is just not. Junior lecturers get it worst; if anyone our age wants to be an academic then, as it stands, they just would not be able to retire. If the pension changes, the pension changes for us. The best solution from this is for the contract to be renegotiated.

For me, we really really need to win these strikes

What does 'win' mean though?

K: Pushing the UUK back into a negotiating position, and to change their proposals.

What happened in the meeting with Hugh Brady on Monday?

K: I talked about how investment in staff is an investment in myself and my education, because their working environment is our taught environment. I really love my tutors, they are the point of contact - you never see management!

Kate and Ruth head into the Senate meeting to talk with Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady (Epigram / Olly Santoro)

Do you think he listened to what you said? Was he receptive?

R: A lot of the academics looked at us and they seemed pretty receptive. Hugh did look at us and said 'it's always good to have students challenge us and putting us to shame' but I don't know if that was a throw away line. He seemed to listen but we'll have to see if he does anything.

K: He said how the University felt as though they were stuck in a hard place, which I can understand. Most of the management members are UUK members and some are UCU, so it does create a management issue but at the same time it's how far your sympathy goes for the management isn't it!

R: They said the management position is that they want a long-term solution that is viable and protects current staff but also future staff. He said that one precondition he would put on negotiations is having that long-term solution. He does say that it is a very difficult situation. He said the deficit is going to be a hard thing to deal with, and he wants people to work "imaginatively" about it.

What do you think has been the high point of the strikes so far, and have there been any low points that you could have done differently?

K: High points, I think Monday was probably all round the best day.

R: No march has been planned, we were just meant to have a rally outside Senate House but because there were so many people we marched down to College Green, then we got into see the Vice-Chancellor! So, in terms of ramping it up we got a lot more visibility and we got a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor which was nothing that we were expecting.

K: I actually don't think anything has really gone badly. It's more what would be done differently if we could go back three weeks in time, as we could try to get students involved sooner so it doesn't feel like they have just been hit in the face with strikes.

Another thing I would like to say is about militancy claims. Technically we have not been militant, we have been disruptive.

There was a video of a protester pushing into a security guard yesterday in Wills?

K: There was an incident yesterday where people tried to push through the security guards to the door. Because the doors go outwards and the students were going inwards they weren't going to be able to push through the doors so the security guards were stuck. They pushed back to get some breathing room, then the people at the front pushed back and then Luke jumped in and told everyone to stop.

So are you actively trying to keep it peaceful?

K: Oh yeah. Obviously these are very passionate people, by that point we are tired, it had been a very long day - most of us were probably 'hangry' by that point too! But the students are actively measuring other students; it is not as though security or lecturers are having to come and control us. If anyone does get over excited or passionate it is the students who step in and are monitoring ourselves. I think that incident was the first time that happened so it really isn't something to worry about.

R: There is also a huge difference between disruption and militancy. Disruption is needed, as shown yesterday, so that management could hear us; disruption to the students is only minor compared to the disruption to the whole system of Higher Education. But we definitely haven't been militant; we haven't been going round punching security guards or students. We have just been making some noise and trying to get our message out there.

Before I go, is there anything else you would like to get across?

K: Teach-Outs are really really important, as they create spaces of horizontal teaching and learning off-Campus.

R: Most of these are political education too, which is a way to teach people 'what is a strike? What does staff-student solidarity look like?'.

K: It is also worth going to a rally, even if you don't know whether you support the strikes or not, just to listen to the speakers- and talk to lecturers there.

R: Also student action: try to avoid crossing the picket line as much as possible and if you want to help to organise anything then join our group: staff-student solidarity.

(Featured image: Epigram / Olly Santoro)

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