Samar Khan addresses the importance of standing in solidarity with striking staff members.
In the midst of UCU strike action, student voices appear simultaneously fractured and unified.
At the SU’s annual members meeting, of the 250 students in attendance, 235 voted in favour of supporting the strike. This vote seems to suggest that 94% of Bristol students support the strike, but a different story was told online. A video was posted last Monday of a group seeking more students to attend the rally on Monday by disrupting lectures and study spaces. They were lambasted by commenters on Facebook for ‘militant’, ‘disgusting behaviour’ and ‘harassing other students’ in ‘a good old self-indulgent middle-class Bristol Uni kid protest’.
With nine more planned strike days, how should we respond to the activities that have been taking place on campus, and what do we need to know about the strikes and how can we bring them to a close?
Why is the strike happening?
First, we must remember that the point of a strike is to be disruptive. When railway workers go on strike they are fully aware of the consequences for the travellers. If the trains aren’t running, people don’t get to work, so they complain about it. Pressure mounts on the bosses and eventually they come to the negotiating table; the trains start running when the strikers gain an appropriate settlement. If the workers hadn’t caused a disruption their bosses would have continued to ignore them.
This strike is no different. Universities UK (UUK) the body formed of Vice Chancellors for all UK universities, wants to switch the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), or the pension pot that our lecturers have been paying into, from a ‘defined benefits scheme’ to a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Put simply, this means that final pensions are no longer secure and will depend on the performance of the pension pot on the stock market rather than workers’ contributions.
According to independent modelling by First Actuarial, a typical lecturer at the lower end of the pay scale is set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement. From another perspective, teachers at private schools have their pensions secured by the tax payer whilst lecturers are being asked to handle the risk for themselves. UUK did not ask lecturers if they were happy with this proposal and refused to negotiate, so the only remaining option is to strike.
It’s important to understand that deciding to go on strike is incredibly difficult for lecturers. It’s not something they want to do; indeed, they are not paid for the days that they are on strike. Their mortgage payments are suffering, their families will lose out and – if this strike fails – they could lose £10,000 a year after retirement in the name of a fabricated and familiar concept: the ‘deficit’ (hundreds of academics have written to the government denouncing the deficit as a ‘non-existent problem’).
The decision to strike seems confusing at first. If it’s not something they want to do, and it’s not something they can afford to do, then why do it? The promise of a secure, decent pension is (or was) a redeeming quality about becoming an academic in the UK. Considering the years of hard studying that lecturers go through, their salaries are not remarkable. For someone that is passionate about their subject and teaching, I imagine a remarkable salary is not important (the average pay for a senior lecturer is £44,000), but a secure future obviously is. Being told that this security is going to be stripped away from you is not an easy pill to swallow. You are being told that your efforts are not valued.
Why should we support the strike?
We can all agree that we are lost without our educators. The structure provided by contact hours has been removed, and I can’t imagine why any student would be pleased about this. Negotiations between UUK and UCU have started but if they fail we could be in for a much longer period of disruption. This will not be the case if students make their move. As the largest body comprising this university, it’s crucial that we learn about what is going on, realise our power, and actively decide where to place our support: with management or with our educators.
We should bear in mind that these bosses, UUK, are a team of Vice Chancellors that all have secure pensions and eye watering salaries. Hugh Brady is paid £282,472 and has a £1 million pension waiting for him. In fact, Hugh Brady has already upset University College Dublin, increasing fees for students and devaluing the arts. At Bristol, 19 members of the management team are on more than £100,000. Brady has overseen the dismantling of democratic structures that allowed staff within faculties to vote for their Deans and heads of school, in place of a corporate, top-down structure.
'We should view the strikes as an example of the drastic measures that need to be taken just to be listened to by a structure that no longer serves us.'
His management team has already axed the pensions of professional support staff (librarians, technicians etc), and rolled out casualised pay per hour contracts for teaching staff. This same management team has caused our libraries to become overcrowded due to their addiction to expansion, enabled the government to hike our tuition fees, increased rents, proposed merciless cuts to welfare systems in halls and used welfare as a bargaining chips in their e-mails to us. We should view the strikes as an example of the drastic measures that need to be taken just to be listened to by a structure that no longer serves us.
The most straightforward reason to support the strikes is that this will end the strikes sooner. The point of a strike is to be disruptive. We are meant to be annoyed; we are supposed to react. If no students join staff at the demonstrations, our voices will not be heard, and if we continue to come into university on strike days, it will look like we don’t care. The main concern of management is to keep students placated – their emails are evidence of this. We must speak up, write to the VC and write to our striking staff, or, at the very least, we should be voting with our bodies by going to rallies or alternative study spaces on strike days.
We must also reflect on how we value our educators and education in general. For some, this is simple:‘My education costs me £9000 per year’. This is an attitude that inevitably leads to demands for compensation, which is without doubt a subject that needs to be debated. However, it’s important to consider that this attitude would not have existed pre-2010, when the government cut funding to universities and hiked tuition fees by 300%, making them the main source of income for universities. If we are going to think about a refund we should also wonder why we are paying fees at all; 15 years ago we didn’t have to pay a thing.
'A university is not just a place that consumers hang out in for three years before putting their bought goods, a BA or BSc, high up on their LinkedIn profiles.'
Since the introduction of ‘tuition fees’, students have been told that we are consumers. By equating the value of our education to the amount of money it costs us, we have become consumers. This has completely destroyed the idea of a university. A university is not just a place that consumers hang out in for 3 years before putting their bought goods, a BA or BSc or MA, high up on their on their LinkedIn profiles in exchange for a desk space in London and a lifetime in front of a computer screen.
Whilst banging pots in our peers' faces and shouting at them is clearly a failed enterprise, students should not be apologetic for asking their peers to open their eyes to the reality of our situation. These are people that are conscious of the way the world is being contorted and don’t want it to continue. They are people that, at the very least, realise their ability to reverse the degradation of universities. To be called ‘middle-class’ is bizarre, as there aren’t many people at this university that don’t fit that description. To be called ‘self-indulgent’ is painful. Any form of collective action is conducted with the intention of making a difference for a group much, much larger than just the individual.
Ultimately, nothing about this situation is going to change unless we take action. If protesters hadn’t been making noise outside the senate meeting, Hugh Brady would have been able to continue his sermon about the new buildings by Temple Meads that are costing us £300 million. After just a few days of strike, our collective efforts forced Vice Chancellors to encourage negotiations that are still ongoing. Only by standing shoulder to shoulder with others can we produce a change.
How to support the strike:
- Tell staff that you support them
- Email the Vice Chancellor
- Don’t go to campus on strike days
Featured Image: Epigram / Samar Khan