"Almost two years later, I’m back in Cambridge, and UCU are about to strike once again"Lois Wright

The third year of my undergraduate degree was one of the best times of my life. This was for some obvious reasons; I was by then comfortably familiar with Cambridge as a city and a social setting, and finally beginning to understand what about my degree had so attracted me in the first place. It was also, however, because of the UCU strikes in February and March 2018.

Given the strikes’ stated aim of disruption, this might sound strange. After all, I was in my final year, and on account of being a somewhat chaotic student, I was organisationally incapable of pre-planning my studies around it. Time and tine again, staff members emphasised the reluctant nature of their decisions to strike; they wouldn’t choose to make life harder for their students except as a last, desperate resort. But, having been a student for two years, I recognised that desperation.

Almost two years later, I’m back in Cambridge, and UCU are about to strike once again; some things stay the same, but some things do change

The 2018 strike action formally addressed the specific issue of pensions, but it came in the context of mounting discontent in higher education fuelled by marketisation. The pensions cuts opposed by UCU were a symptom of the transformation of universities into profit-driven businesses, which has led to the tripling of tuition fees to £9,250 and the deterioration of pay and working conditions for university staff. It has also led to spiralling workloads, meaning that staff are unable to give as much time and attention to teaching students, and half of all staff in the sector having precarious and insecure employment. Far from a selfish action by staff at the expense of students - as some university managers would have us believe - the staff strike action gave space, voice, and energy to confronting problems that had been damaging students’ experiences for years.

Almost two years later, I’m back in Cambridge, and UCU are about to strike once again; some things stay the same, but some things do change. For one, I’m a graduate student, which means it’s more acutely apparent to me than ever that staff interests in this struggle are also student interests. Unlike for home undergraduate students, there is no fee cap, and no comparable student loan scheme; a market model has rendered graduate study profoundly financially inaccessible. If I or any of my coursemates are considering academia, we will have to contend with job prospects that are only getting worse, and which deter many disadvantaged students from even trying. In addition, graduate students who teach are some of the most precarious and poorly-paid workers in the university.

For another, the focus of UCU’s dispute this time has explicitly broadened to encompass the issues of pensions, pay, casualisation, workloads, and the gender, race, and disability pay gaps. That UCU were able to amass enough support for such wide-ranging action is a testament to the severity of the crisis, as well as to the transformative impact of the strikes in 2018. This time, I suppose as an individual I have more to lose; my MPhil course lasts nine months rather than 3 years, with teaching mainly in the first term, and a cost of £14,400 that (rightly or wrongly) feels a bit more urgent than a government tuition fee loan.

But the crisis we face is neither short-term nor individual; it is a long-term project to turn students into passive consumers of teaching services and research as an instrument of profit, overwhelming in its institutional force and systematically disempowering everyone caught inside. To somewhat repurpose Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

What I remember most clearly are the new modes of being and relating to each other that were made possible during that month

The old is certainly dying, but the activities of the strike go some way in the birthing process. Whatever challenges I subsequently faced as a student, the most potent aspect of the strikes last year was also in its disruptive capacity: a disruption that forcefully held open a space for staff and students alike to understand that we deserve more than ‘business as usual’. Perhaps over and above anything else I value from my time at Cambridge, what I learned during the strikes and their aftermath was a tangible form of hope.

The most widely memorable events were, unsurprisingly, the deliberately attention-grabbing stunts: mass rallies every day; active and visible picket lines; a week-long Old Schools occupation. What I remember most clearly, however, are the new modes of being and relating to each other that were made possible during that month. Daily picket support, bringing hot drinks and snacks for those on strike and standing together on the picket lines, materialised a new staff-student solidarity; didactic, individualised forms of teaching and learning gave way to the collaborative curricula of teach-outs. The physical spaces of picket lines, rallies, and occupation allowed staff and students alike to experiment concretely with a different kind of university. There is no other opportunity that allows us to traverse the strictures of our present institutional logic at such scale – to set loose the question of what a university should be, and to assert that it should be ruled not for profit, but for a public good.

I know from experience that it can be difficult to do; the exceptional space of the strikes will end, bringing us back into the governance of institutional and market logics, to the tyrannical decisiveness of final grades and individual success. But the 2018 strikes have left their mark, and now in 2019 we have the opportunity to build on it. In any case, the continuous crisis of ‘business as usual’ means student life in the absence of any strikes is hard already, particularly for working class and other marginalised students, and will only get harder for more people if we are unable to drastically reimagine it.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Letting go of my desire to be British

This is not to dismiss individual anxieties, but to insist on the possibility and necessity of a higher education system that does not entrench those anxieties so deeply within us in the first place. And when we are systemically disempowered as individual service providers and consumers, we must also recognise the necessity of collective action – staff and students, working together – not only for our shared struggles as insiders to the academy, but for everyone who has by virtue of its structural injustice been excluded from and marginalised by it. We can already tell, from our everyday experiences, that we are in the midst of a crisis. The difficult decision of staff to strike opens the door to collectively imagining something better.

Sponsored links