UCU Teach Out II

This house, as a university student, would support the national strikes

  • This report is a part of the following series: UCU Teach Out.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Most students are just happy that they can go out and not have to get up for a 9am.

Sasha Dowman

The Lancaster University Students’ Union has been pilloried from some corners for its non-stance on the recent UCU strike action. The SU pledged to provide impartial information pertaining to both sides of the dispute, and it was with this attitude that the Lancaster Debating Union (LDU) put on a debate on the proposition that this house, as a university student, would support the national strikes. It must have seemed like a Sisyphean task for the three speakers assigned to the opposition view—who, an organiser felt the need to point out, had not had a choice in the matter—when the initial vote revealed unsurprisingly unanimous support for the motion.

The first speaker for the proposition was Dr Johann Johnny Unger, Lancaster UCU Membership Officer and lecturer within the Department of English Languages and Culture at Lancaster. He opened with a jibe about the cough he was suffering being his only similarity to Theresa May, followed by a brief overview of what the UCU academics were fighting for. Due to the proposed pension changes, university support staff (he stressed that this was not an issue for lecturers alone, but also librarians, service support staff, etc.) could lose over 50% of their retirement income. The commensurate drop in retirement income from £22,000 to £9,000, he pointed out, would put them well below minimum wage. Academic staff have expenses like everyone else, and he stressed that this current crisis was not the result of financial recklessness on the part of academics—they have been planning their retirements for many years based on the original pensions they were promised.

Part of reason for the present antipathy from university staff, he stated, was over the broken promises made by their employers. Pension cuts in 2011 and 2014 went unopposed by the UCU, he said, because they were promised that would be the end of it. No doubt an equally large part of the reason is that the proposed changes are being pushed forward on faulty grounds. There is no deficit, and the analysis of the risk assumes daft things like all universities going bankrupt, he said, so the premise on which these devastating cuts are being proposed is a nonexistent one, and those pushing the view are a small group of people who want more money to build shiny new buildings on campus. There are also complaints about the way in which Universities UK (UUK) consulted on the changes, and their transparency about the process. Crucially, Dr Unger added, the university is not just its buildings, but its people too.

When Lancaster’s Vice-Chancellor (VC) Prof. Mark E. Smith claims, as in a recent interview with our student media, that there is not enough money for UCU’s counter-proposals, he does so before the backdrop of an unprecedented level of investment in university infrastructure. Additionally, the claim of some VCs that lecturers were actually better-off now due to a 1–2% increase in wages was put in the context of inflation—it, as with most public sector pay rises, represents a loss in real terms. That Prof. Smith’s rise of ~7% does not did not go unnoticed. Dr Unger concluded by mentioning Prof. Bob Jessop’s excellent talk on the marketisation and financialisation of universities, which I have covered previously, and the statement that this phenomenon has made higher education worse.

The first speaker for the opposition was LDU Training Officer and Lancaster student Susanna Vahtramäe. She opened by stating that the opposition was not going to argue against the need to take some action in order to protect pensions, which all could agree was necessary, but rather to argue against the specific use of 14 days of strike action proposed by the UCU, particularly from the student perspective. Ms Vahtramäe began by explaining that industrial action is normally employed when a group is at risk of losing something important to them. The aim is to provide a financial incentive for their employer to comply with their demands, by incurring a financial loss to their employer via the withholding of their labour. The current strikes, however, do not deprive the university of anything. Ms Vahtramäe, as a student, cannot refrain from paying [her] tuition fees. Students thus have no means, regardless of their views on the strike, to opt out of their financial transaction with the university.

She claimed that, apparently, only 5 out of 61 universities affected by the strikes have reported any major disruption. That UCU membership is estimated to be only 16% of eligible staff was suggested as a reason. The impact of bad publicity and PR, which is often used as justification for industrial action, was then criticised. Any such impact has, in the first place, been weakened by the fact that each VC shares it with 60 others. Additionally, whilst the strikes were initially well-covered in the media, that coverage has dropped off in the second week, suggesting that a two-day strike would have been as efficacious as the 14-day one, whilst disrupting students less.

The point was raised that some final-year students could now be reasonably expected to receive a lower classification of degree than they would have done had the disruption not taken place. Ms Vahtramäe was doubtful that employers will be as empathetic towards students as the students have been towards the strikers, and concluded by asking where the money to cover the UCU’s demands would come from? Not, she suspected, VC’s pay packets. It will not be a case of students saying oh no, I lost my Sugarbus [a free bus put on by the SU to and from their town-based nightclub], but rather oh no, I lost my mental health services, or oh no, I lost my humanities department.

The second speaker for the proposition was Dr Julie Hearn, Lancaster UCU President, elected member of the UCU National Elected Committee and lecturer in Lancaster’s Politics, Philosophy & Religion Department. She implored everyone to step back and see what we’ve achieved in these past few days for higher education, claiming that the HE sector has never seen anything like this level of co-ordinated rebellion. She dismissed the idea of a two-day strike as something the UCU had been doing for years and that they had got nowhere with them. Two-day strikes, Dr Hearn claimed, are the difference between a 1% pay rise and a 1.1% pay rise. This was rubbish, peanuts, not good enough.

Dr Hearn pointed out that the strikes had already brought UUK back to the negotiating table, and that the strikers achieved [their] objective within the first six days of the protest. She again alluded to Prof. Jessop’s previous talk, saying that the view amongst students had morphed from I’m going to university to learn, to develop myself, and to maybe have a better salary as a side effect to I’m paying for the chance to earn a better salary. She claimed that strikes are politicising, they are empowering and [the university staff] know that when they leave the pickets and return to their workplaces, it won’t be the same because [they] are not the same. She also talked briefly about how these strikes had been a victory for women within the notoriously male-dominated world of unionism, but failed to explain how this made any difference at all to the students. Indeed, the proposition side throughout had a bit of a problem with remembering the proposition that they were supposed to be debating, instead just regaling the the already-supportive audience with reasons why the strikes were a good thing.

The second speaker for the opposition was Charles Combes, also a Lancaster student. He opened with the statistic that some courses are losing up to 10% of their teaching time, which meant one could expect some students to lose a few percentage marks in their end-of-year exams. Not a problem for most, he conceded, but borderline students can and will go down a classification because of this. The UCU were, in effect, asking [students] to support something that would directly harm us. It was unreasonable, he added, to say students should support the strikes because of tuition fees, or the marketisation of universities, because none of these things would be retarded by the strike’s victory. As proof of this, he cited the government support for student campaigns asking for tuition fee refunds to cover the strike period, further entrenching the marketised idea of students as consumers of a product. That only three-fifths of students support the strikes was cited as evidence that they are a divisive issue.

The most compelling point made, however, was that of the alternatives to strike action that could have been proposed instead. For example, a refusal by academics to apply for research grants. This would have been, Mr Combes argued, equally unprecedented, whilst also affecting the university bottom-line without affecting students. It would have also allowed for greater support from without the UCU membership, rather than the current situation of UCU members resigning over the strike action. He concluded by criticising the UCU proposal to extend the strikes to a refusal to mark exams as being even more detrimental towards students than the current actions.

We paused here for a Q & A. The first asker rather took the words out of my mouth, and my friend beside me’s notes, by admonishing the proposition side for having made it clear why lecturers are on strike, but having not made it clear why students should give a shit. Dr Unger responded, saying that he had once been a student, and that one of the first things [he] did at university was to participate in a rent strike. Later, when his lecturers struck over pay and conditions, he joined them because [he] remembered them having supported him previously.

The first question for the opposition was from a researcher who claimed that their proposal of not applying for grants would put [her] out of a job. Mr Combes replied that striking also harms your career propects and that there are always harms in all forms of industrial action, but that they are accepted as necessary. The proposition side were then asked for their reasons against a research proposal boycott, which was now my most pressing question. They replied that teaching is the most tangible and visible resource that lecturers can withhold, and that students wouldn’t be as aware of a research grant boycott as they are the withholding of their teaching. On the basis that the students are not in a position to do an awful lot, as Ms Vahtramäe had previously pointed, this seemed a very flimsy rationale. Surely affecting the university’s bottom-line with a research boycott would attract the notice of the VC, who is far better-placed to affect the change the strikers want? In my notes, I have simply written and?.

The penultimate question for the opposition asked for the evidence they had that degree classifications would be affected by the strike. Mr Combes replied that the worry that it might have an impact will, in itself, have an impact. He made the quite valid point that if studying under the tutelage of an academic professional had no impact on results, then every lecturer would be out of a job. Finally, the proposition side were asked how they would keep students’ studies from harm. Dr Hearn fielded the question, going on about how we are all in shock at the moment, that VCs and capital markets are the only ones to benefit from [the marketisation] of universities and that it is the university, who students pay their fees to, that has the responsibility to safeguard students’ studies, and they will do so. Ignoring, for a moment, this out-of-character acceptance of the idea that universities owe students as consumers and all its marketised trappings, Dr Hearn then proceeded to go on a lengthy train of digressions that eventually led to her lamenting the effect of student loans on the mental health of students from oppressed backgrounds. By the end, the question remained stubbornly unanswered.

The final speaker for the opposition, US student Drew Taylor, summarised the issue with the efficacy of the strikes as having not given the VCs much incentive to make any changes whatsoever, as they know that the strikes will end Friday of next week and that they know that the lecturers are unlikely to go through with not marking exams because y’all care about students. Whilst there are core problems with education, Mr Taylor recognised, a better solution would be to go protest at Westminster, write to your MPs, make a movement of all people, not just the 16% of staff who are members of the UCU.

The final speaker for the proposition, LDU President Sasha Dowman, begun by claiming that 80% of the Students’ Union, when polled, were in favour of the strike, and that it had not created a backlash against lecturers. Mr Combes here chimed in for the opposition, asking if it was surprising that 80% of members of one union support those of another union, and again pointing out that support amongst students generally was lower. Ms Dowman continued, claiming that the strikes create a narrative in which students can take back their education, and that may allow students to get back into their rich history of getting involved in politics and being a vehicle for change. She acknowledged that there were more practical reasons for students to support the strikes—that most students are just happy that they can go out and not have to get up for a 9am—and dismissed concerns that studies would be harmed by stating that students who are actively engaged and invested in their education are only losing a soft resource.

At the final vote, there was a whopping four votes in favour of the opposition side, including my own. Whilst that may seem unimpressive, the fact that the proposition side managed to lose any votes from such a captive audience, all of whom came to the event supporting the strike, is testament to their muddled arguments, failure to engage with the question at hand and inability to present a compelling reason against the use of a research grant boycott instead of strike action.

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