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Should students support the UCU strikes?

As long as there has been democracy, there has been protest, ranging from the anti-apartheid in South Africa to the Suffragettes of the U.K. In the shadow of such movements, it’s tempting to compare other strike action in a poor light. This is especially true in a nation in which we theoretically have reached a point of equity, even more so when we are the ones affected by it. The recent UCU strikes could certainly be viewed in this way. A point of contention for many students, most fall in the middle ground of sympathising with their striking lecturers, but feeling unfairly disadvantaged by their loss in contact hours. But can this position be reconciled?

Most students fall in the middle ground of sympathising with their striking lecturers but feeling unfairly disadvantaged by their loss in contact hours.

After an eight-day strike period in December, the University and College Union (UCU) are striking again this year for just under a month, taking place from Thursday 20th February to Friday 13th March. While the last round of strikes were relatively well-supported by students, the latest action has ignited an air of indignation around campus. The strikes could result in a maximum of eight contact hours for some pupils across the rest of the term. Not only will an additional 200,000 students now be affected on top of the million impacted last term, but this comes at a seminal point in many university careers, with deadlines kicking in and dissertations looming.

Despite our grievances, it is important to remember why the UCU are striking in the first place. The main point of dispute between staff and universities is over pensions. Due to changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which is responsible for providing academics with their pensions, many staff members will end up putting more money in to their retirement funds but ultimately receive less out of it – an average of £240,000 less, to be precise. This leaves many teaching staff unprotected and insecure as they are forced to rely on this money to survive after work.

Many staff members will end up putting more money into their retirement funds but ultimately receive less out of it.

The second source of contention is over pay. University staff are now paid a minimum of 17% less in real terms compared to 2009. Even though the UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) have presented compellingly different findings, UCU general secretary Jo Grady continues to assert that “whichever way you look at it staff pay has plummeted”. Not only this, but due to the casualisation in labour – the rise of casual and contractual positions – 30% of current academic’s work is not paid for. All the long hours working late into the night and the painfully early starts we usually associate as typical of teaching jobs are rightfully being brought into question by the UCU strikes.

University staff are now paid a minimum of 17% less in real terms compared to 2009.

With these issues still left unresolved – the UCEA refused to budge on the pay element – the UCU has committed to further strike action. But how will we as students be affected? When not striking, union members will be “working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action”, as the UCU details. However, not all academics are part of the Union, which creates a disparity between those students who will continue with their usual lectures and seminars, and those who will see a significant drop in contact hours – particularly humanities and social science pupils.

Not all academics are part of the union, which creates a disparity between those students who will continue with their usual lectures and seminars, and then those who will see a significant drop in contact hours.

Knowing all of the information, students are left to decide – should we support the UCU strikes? This has been a source of much conflict for pupils. While many are sympathetic to the cause, we are also left wondering why we are spending upwards of £9,250 to miss out on significant portions of our education. If we’re going to be in debt for so long after we leave, we should be getting the most of out of our university experience whilst we are still here.

Many students are left wondering why they are spending £9,250 to miss out on significant portions of their education.

These worries are quickly becoming national. Due to the severe cuts in contact hours, the argument for refunding students is steadily growing in support. Students at the University of Leicester are already officially calling for compensation, and it seems in due time Warwick and other local universities will follow suit, with a change.org petition demanding compensation fast- reaching it’s 15,000 target. But is this outcry missing the point?

The argument for refunding students is steadily growing in support.

As UCU member and Warwick academic Katya Laug states, “the current model of running universities is unsustainable […] often resulting in 60+ hours a week” – researchers and teachers need financial security in order to carry on doing the work they love. However, the impact isn’t just economic; “precarious and casual contracts not only mean that we often have to log our hours, always fewer than we have actually worked, but that we are constantly looking for another job and writing applications on top of dealing with our normal workload”. This isn’t including the myriad of further issues for female, disabled and BAME academics, whose “social and personal wellbeing” are even more affected with pay gaps and micro aggressions. The fact that, on top of this, strikers are forced to lose pay for the 14 days of picketing, as well as valuable teaching and research time, show the issues to be of upmost importance.

The second wave of strikes clearly suggests that something more needs to be done for the UCU to achieve their demands, perhaps the addition of a substantial student voice. It’s easy to worry about how we’re being affected, and equally difficult to stick to one side of the debate, but more emphasis needs be put on the staff struggle. Teacher- student solidarity is the only way to avoid further fissures down the line.

The UCU strikes have revealed enormous cracks in the current education system. Not only are universities failing their students, but they’re also falling short of supporting their staff. Whilst our grievances over missed contact hours are valid, as are the emerging calls for compensation, we must look at the bigger picture. With academics forced to use foodbanks and work multiple jobs in order to survive, our reservations must be challenged before anything will be achieved. Teachers are the foundation of our learning and education system; a house without solid foundations will not stand strong.

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