By Siavash Minoukadeh, Entertainment Subeditor
In the last few days, a petition has been going around demanding that Parliament compels universities affected by the recent round of UCU strikes to repay students’ tuition fees. I’ve seen it pop up a fair few times on my social media feeds and I feel the sentiment behind it, really I do. As a Liberal Arts student, I’ve been hit hard by the strikes, with almost all of my classes for the last four weeks being called off.
Not having anything meaningful to do over the last month has not just felt like a waste of time, it’s taken a serious toll on my mental health. Despite trying my best to fill up my free time with independent study, societies, spending time at home and with my friends, I’ve not been able to shake the feeling that I have nothing important to do, nothing that can contribute to the world meaningfully. Lying in without a routine of a timetable, I’ve felt myself slipping back into depression and not having a reason to leave the house has hardly helped my anxiety either, giving me plenty of excuses to stay at home and avoid interaction.
So yes, I’m frustrated but I understand why staff went on strike. I’m still supportive of the fact that they did - their welfare is no less important than my own, and the whole point of a strike is to be disruptive. Some students seem to support the strike provided that they personally are not at all inconvenienced by it - a position that doesn’t make much sense to me.
Nevertheless, I would like some sort of compensation if it doesn’t undermine the position of staff. Rescheduling lost classes is looking unlikely given we’re living in the midst of pandemic so one would suppose the next best thing is to get the money I paid back.
I would like some sort of compensation if it doesn't undermine the position of the staff
Only I wouldn’t stand to get very much money back. As has been pointed out a number of times, whilst some staff were not at work during the strike period, the rest of the University was still operational. Libraries, halls, security, wellbeing services and a range of other services continued to operate and in the case of any reimbursement, we would only get the small portion of our fees that went to staff wages, split between all the students those staff would have taught.
According to the SU’s calculations this sum would be pretty small - probably closer to £90 than £9000. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer to have £90 than not have £90 but even then, this money wouldn’t go to me.
Like the majority of UK students, I haven’t actually paid any money for my education. My fees have been paid to the University by Student Finance England - any refund would go to them. It’s true enough that eventually, I will pay this back eventually but it’s hardly as though a cut of less than £100 would do much to make a dent in the average UK graduate’s debt of £36,000. Given that repayments are taken in monthly instalments, I would probably end up being a few pence better off each month.
So, in short, even if this petition was to be successful, the result would be that future me would be a little less completely overwhelmed by the debt brought about by a marketised education system. Not as dramatic a win as you’d think.
But the question still remains. The unpaid staff wages are still in the University’s accounts, waiting to be used for something useful - or for the renaming of Senate House, again. Following the last round of strikes in November, the SU was consulted to find how this cash could be used to improve campus life in other ways.
Only there isn’t going to be much in the way of campus life for the moment. With the University ending its term early and many students going home or staying at home as much as possible, there’s not much point in spending the money in, for example, improving the Source Cafe’s offerings or increasing SU society grants, given that there won’t be many people to make use of it.
There is however, one area where an immediate injection of money would do a lot of good: staff wages. Yes, I am aware that during a strike, the striking workers aren’t paid but that’s under normal circumstances and we’re hardly living in that world right now. It couldn’t have been easy for staff to forego such a big chunk of pay and no doubt each striker carefully considered the implications of what this decreased income would be but I doubt that any of them could have foreseen the early ending of teaching and the uncertainty about when and how, teaching will continue.
The unpaid staff wages are still in the University's accounts, waiting to be used for something useful
Staff would have been relying on their income from the last two weeks of teaching to help them make ends meet even more so than usual following the strikes - now that most of this has been cancelled, there is even more uncertainty and worry. Furthermore, given that so many staff members are on casual or short term contracts, they might not even know if they will have a job in a few months and it’s hardly as though the middle of a pandemic is a good time to go job-hunting.
University management has previously shown support for striking staff. If they want to put their money where their mouth is, paying staff for the time they were on strike would go a long way to providing financial security and comfort for them. Whilst we as students continue to push for reimbursement that would end up having very little impact on our lives in the long term, the University will not feel as much pressure to support its staff during these unprecedented times.
Instead of a quick click on a petition, our best opportunity to make sure our fees are used in a meaningful way is to substantively engage with the issue and with the University to do what we can to ensure the financial security of the staff who make our time at Bristol worthwhile.
Featured Image: Petitions / Gov
Where do you think the strike money should go?