Opinion | The UCU strikes are for staff and students alike


By Ella Mapes, First Year Law

This week has seen a collective effort from university staff members striking for better pensions, equal pay, a fairer workload, and a change to casual contracts. As a result, many lectures and tutorials have been disrupted: students in subjects like History and English are missing out on 10 days of contact hours as a result.

This loss of precious time, in combination with the high university fees, means it is understandable that students may feel bereaved over this loss.

However, it is important not to direct this anger at lecturers themselves. The UCU strikes are not only about achieving fair pay and receiving better pensions – they also focus on improving working conditions for students.

Whilst students may feel they are not getting their ‘money’s worth’ out of university from the lost lesson hours, it must be remembered that students are much more likely to get ‘better value for their money’ if staff are not completely overworked.

Strikes about pay, pensions and casual contracts | Bristol UCU

Whilst staff have some allocated time to prepare their teaching content, this time is simply not enough – preparation can take hours, and thus many have no choice but to work extra hours free of charge. It is therefore understandable that, occasionally, teaching standards may slip due to many being exhausted from their heavy work burden.

As Max Heng, a striker for the UCU, highlighted: “If teachers are too tired to mark work properly, then our education is disrupted anyway”.

The casualisation of contracts also poses a problem to students’ access to education. As David Ion, a third-year student, has pointed out, “staff need to be on long term contracts to stay invested in their teaching”.

Many have no choice but to work extra hours free of charge

In order for students to get the best out of our education, we need to have staff who are able to fully commit to their subject, rather than walking precariously on a tight-rope of anxiety, fearing that their contract may come to a sudden and complete end.

The affect this has on the lecturers is palpable.

A report from the Guardian revealed that in the University of Bristol alone there has been an 88% increase in staff referrals to counselling services and a 142% in referrals to occupational health services. As these figures show, the growing amount of pressure placed upon our lecturers is incredibly unjust.

Not only does it prevent them from delivering their lectures/lessons to a standard that they may be happy with, but it may also bleed out the enthusiasm staff have for their subject. And, if the pressures prevent staff from expressing their love over their area of interest, then how can students be inspired to learn above and beyond in their subject?

If students do feel the strikes mean they aren’t getting ‘good value for money’, I would urge them to look at the bigger picture.

Whilst we may be paying premium private prices, there have been reports that some facilities are no better off than chronically underfunded state schools. Students and staff alike continue to suffer from poor working conditions: some academics are forced work in class sizes of 30. For many students, this is a far cry from the premium working conditions they expected.

Posted by UCU - University and College Union on Friday, 29 November 2019

The lifting of the cap on university tuition fees in 2010 suggested students would be receiving an even better high education experience. In reality, students are morphed into “customers rather than learners”, as stated by an anonymous senior lecturer. And, in turn, the universities have become advertisers. This change in the education system is the reason why many students are now claiming they want compensation for their loss of teaching hours.

Yet this view misses the point of the strikes.

If we too view university as a business, then it is easy to perceive the lecturers who are striking as part of the issue. Doing so would be wrong; on attending a strike I was told by one lecturer that they “hate being on strike,” but are striking because they have to.

Students are morphed into customers rather than learners

Staff dislike the notion that students are parties to a business contract as much as we do. Instead of seeing the strikes as a breach of contract, perceive them as a rejection over the commercialisation of education.

Whilst students may believe the UCU strikes have disrupted their education, instead view it as a chance to learn from staff grievances. We should listen to the fair demands of our lecturers and support them: the strikes are for student and staff alike.

Featured Image: Charlie Loddo

Do you think it's fair that students have missed their contact hours?