Protesters at a UCU rally Rebecca Tyson

Did you support the strikes? I didn’t, but speaking to people at the time, it felt like most students did. It’s an understandable position. A lot of people know and like their supervisors, and the idea that they’re getting underpaid by rich colleges, while tangential to the strikes themselves, does seem wrong. Equally, lecturer strikes just don’t cause that much damage. As an English undergrad, I’ve had dozens of lectures axed since I arrived at Cambridge – but as any humanities student with a hangover can attest, our lectures tend to be pretty missable. STEM lecturers, who play a much bigger role in their students’ education, don’t tend to be the striking kind. Some cancelled teaching, especially faculty seminars, will have been important, but not enough to make the UCU’s industrial action feel like a crisis.

The marking boycott is different. However much students want to show solidarity, the thought of finalists losing out on grad schemes and master’s places, or even getting deported, because academics want more money is hard to stomach.

The fact is that the UCU (the union representing striking lecturers and markers) are not interested in solidarity. For years students have selflessly backed them in a series of ideological battles against universities, and often against economic reality. They, however, are out to serve themselves. Of course they are; that is the point of a union – to get a better deal for their members. No one else matters.

“You and I are collateral damage in the UCU’s ruthless pursuit of a very ambitious goal.”

The problem, student comrade, is that you are not part of the UCU. They do not represent your interests. They do not care if you lose your dream job, or your funding, or your right to remain in the UK. They are negotiating for an obscene pay rise, and you are their hostage. They can’t hurt universities except by hurting you, and no amount of past solidarity on your part is going to help. The people whose corner you fought, who you brought coffee on the picket line while selfish bastards like me cycled past, whose working conditions you put before your education – these people are going to put profit before you.

Before you object, yes – demanding a pay rise of at least RPI+2% is absolutely obscene. RPI exaggerates inflation, and unions use it to manufacture outrage. If you overstate the rate of inflation by 1% per year, then you can claim that wages have fallen by 13% since 2010, even if they have kept pace with inflation perfectly.

That notwithstanding, by insisting on an above-inflation raise, the UCU is demanding being exempted from the cost of living crisis, and then to get an extra boost on top. Rather than showing real solidarity and accepting a hit along with everyone else, they’re putting the thumbscrews to students in a bid to force cash-strapped universities to shelter them from a problem that everyone else has to face.

“Since the UCU doesn’t care about your interests, you shouldn’t care about theirs.”

Worst of all, it probably isn’t even going to work. As I have argued before, university finances in this country are pretty precarious. (Oxbridge is an exception, but as universities negotiate as a bloc this doesn’t really matter.) I’m not saying that the dispute can’t be resolved; progress seems to have been made on pensions, which had been fuelling the dispute, despite that issue previously looking intractable. But it is clear that the UCU playbook doesn’t involve moderation. Rather than accepting universities’ offer of a 5-8% pay increase (with workers lower down the pay scale getting the bigger bumps), they have doubled down, assuming that the pain a marking boycott will inflict on students will be enough to force universities to cough up. They might be right. But if some universities genuinely cannot afford to pay much more than they have already offered, students are going to suffer needlessly. The UCU is willing to take that risk.

I’m a capitalist. I think the market should settle things. If strikes weren’t gumming things up, unhappy academics would have to make a choice. They could quit in search of better paid jobs, in academia or elsewhere – or put up with lower pay and take comfort in getting to pursue their passion instead of debasing themselves for a place on the McKinsey grad scheme. If enough did quit, universities would have to either pay more to hire and retain staff, or ultimately fold if they couldn’t afford to do so.


Mountain View

We won’t be graduating unless vice-chancellors stop holding our education hostage

You, however, might think the UCU has a case. You might believe in collective bargaining and think that workers should stick it to their employers. That’s fine. I’m not asking you to agree with my economic policy – I’m simply claiming that you and I are collateral damage in the UCU’s ruthless pursuit of a very ambitious goal. So is Cambridge, in a way; the richest university in Europe is unlikely to be the limiting factor in determining what universities are willing to pay.

What I am arguing is that since the UCU doesn’t care about your interests, you shouldn’t care about theirs. Individual academics might care about you, and you might care about individual lecturers. But the policy which boycotting markers are pursuing is based on a total neglect of your welfare. So don’t sign a petition vaguely asking the vice-chancellor to call for a resolution. Ask Cambridge to start playing hardball. Ask them to dock 100% of the pay of anyone who boycotts their marking duties. Ask them to do whatever it takes, no matter how much it hurts academics. You stood by them, and now they’re using your future as a bargaining chip. You don’t owe them anything.