Andrew Hynes

Last week, we spoke with a recent graduate who had participated in the previous UCU strikes in 2018 as a student. Despite finding a job working for the university as a skilled professional, his pay is insufficient and his contract insecure. One thing is crystal clear: partaking in industrial action has instilled in him a readiness to stand up to exploitative bosses. Though picketing is rightly considered politics in action, participating in class struggle provides a real education on a fight the vast majority of us will have to face.

Ultimately, we must consider why our lecturers are being forced back into industrial action, shoulder to shoulder with workers in other sectors. We must tackle the cause, as well as the symptoms. In this case, the attacks on pensions, pay, and equality are the product of the marketisation of education, and Tory austerity. In turn, these are caused by a moribund capitalist system in crisis, desperately seeking new avenues through which to make a profit.

While it was a pensions dispute that ignited the largest strike in the recent history of higher education in 2018, in its course a myriad of issues came to the fore: marketisation; casualisation of staff; exorbitant student fees; and bloated salaries for university management. Over half of academics at universities are on some form of a precarious contract. University staff are already struggling to plan in advance, let alone pay their rent.

If this dispute is lost, the race to the bottom in lecturers’ working and living conditions will accelerate

Our lecturers are not striking to spite us. Quite the contrary. The staff we have spoken to have been keen to reiterate that they would rather be teaching. Their passion for their field of study is what keeps them here in the face of worsening conditions. University staff have faced a real term pay cut of 20% since 2009. An increase in pension contributions is nothing more than an elaborate way to cut pay even further. These are the reasons for the strike — our lecturers are certainly not depriving us of their invaluable knowledge hoping we will fail.

During the 2018 strikes, students around the country demanded compensation from universities for lost contact hours; an argument which is being recycled once more. This is to buy into the language and logic of consumerism. It legitimises the marketisation of higher education and allows management to divide students and staff. We are also hearing that those staff who continue to work are simply exercising their ‘right to work.’ In reality, the right to work is meaningless if it is not also the right to decent work with decent pay and conditions.

There is one thing we can say for sure about the UCU strikes: if this dispute is lost, the race to the bottom in lecturers’ working and living conditions will accelerate and intensify. University management will have won.

If the strike is defeated, universities’ sole purpose will soon be that of a business – creating profit rather than providing a high-quality education. This is why it is vitally important that students support the strike. Showing solidarity and joining the strike is not simply a moral question, but a political one too: Will you fight for your education? Which side are you on?

The election of Jo Grady as UCU general secretary earlier this year has been a breath of fresh air for our lecturers. They say that the spirit of struggle has returned. This time, with left-wing leadership, and both students’ and workers’ experiences of last year’s strikes, we can be even more ambitious with our aims.

Never let anyone tell you that there is no money: the problem is not how much, but who owns it

But showing solidarity with university staff is not dispositional. It proves an empty slogan if it is not coupled with the action of respecting the picket line. The point is to disrupt (that library book can probably wait), to bring activity to a halt, and this means that we must not enter university sites in order to win this dispute. We urge you to go further than this.

Join your lecturers on the picket line. Donate to the strike fund, making whatever sacrifices you can. Campaign for a socialist Corbyn government. It’s the same fight: a strong UCU strike will only embolden the campaign for Labour. And Labour will end the failed free-market experiment in higher education, abolish tuition fees, and bring back maintenance grants. We should use the leverage we have as students to make it known, loud and clear, that we stand with our lecturers.

Our vision should not fall short here. Money exists in society to fund decent pensions and free education for all. Billions sit uninvested in banks in the UK alone. This cash is simply the unpaid wages of the working class. With it, we would be capable of not just sustaining education but improving it a thousandfold. In the hands of the bosses, this wealth sits idle; the capitalists have little incentive to invest.


Mountain View

Imagining a different kind of university

Never let anyone tell you that there is no money: the problem is not how much, but who owns it. Unless we confront capitalism itself, we will be reduced to endlessly fighting the various symptoms of this rigged system.

This strike is not ‘just’ about pensions, pay, and equality. Our times are characterised by counter-reforms and cuts; our standard of living is worse than that of our parents. We will soon inherit the struggle for better pay and conditions. As our friend commented on our experience together in 2018, we must link this to a fundamental redistribution of power in society; the fight for a socialist future where we – students and staff – make decisions based on social need, not profit.