Students rallied in solidarity outside Senate House this afternoon.Mathias Gjesdal Hammer

Over one thousand Cambridge staff began protesting their pension reforms today, joined by students in rallies and teach-outs, and on picket lines.

Today marks the start of 14 days of industrial action by lecturers, who are protesting against pension changes proposed by Universities UK (UUK). Picket lines formed at several sites around Cambridge this morning, including New Museums, Sidgwick, and Downing.

In solidarity with the University and Colleges Union (UCU) Strike, CUSU organised a student rally outside of Senate House at noon today. Several hundred students engaged in chants led by CUSU President Daisy Eyre, including, “They say marketise, we say organise”, and, “Students and workers, unite and fight.”

CUSU Education Officer Martha Krish spoke to the crowd about supporting academic staff and opposing the marketisation of education. She condemned universities for “overworking [academics] and letting their pay slip”, noting furthermore that “academia is the future for many students.”

Her sentiments were echoed by CUSU Women’s Officer Lola Olufemi, who told students: “When we look back at this moment, we will know that we were not complicit”.

Colour bombs filled the air as students marched down King's ParadeMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Following the rally, students then marched along King’s Parade, throwing colour bombs into the crowd on their way to Sidgwick site.

In lecture sites across the university, UCU members handed out flyers, imploring students going to lectures not to enter their faculty and confronting lecturers as to why they were not participating in strike action. As 10am lectures drew to a close, a group of eight lecturers not on strike were spotted walking in a group past their colleagues.

The University of Cambridge Department of Human Resources sent a letter to staff prior to the strikes, requesting staff to advise their “departmental administrator, secretary of faculty board, or equivalent” if they planned to strike.

It threatened to “withhold pay at the full daily rate” if academics refuse to reschedule lectures and classes cancelled due to the strike, although the option to reschedule cancelled classes could undermine the effectiveness of the strike.

Cambridge UCU vice-president Dr. Sam James characterised the letter as “bullying,” with its intention being “to intimidate people into not striking.” A university spokesperson responded: “the advice given in the letter was drawn from Universities and Colleges Employers Association guidance to all UK universities on the managing of industrial action.”

Speaking to Varsity, Cambridge UCU Secretary Waseem Yaqoob spoke about the strikes’ effects on students: “None of us – lecturers, support staff, librarians – want to disrupt [students’] education, but really feel like this is our last resort”.

Commenting on the long-term effects of pension changes which spurred strike action, Dr. Matthias Landgraf, an academic in the Department of Zoology, said the reforms would “deeply [affect] the future of education”.

“What are universities there for? Are they businesses or are they educational institutions?”

Landgraf continued, “The students of today who will be the lecturers of tomorrow – they will feel the biggest impact”.

The UCU's first teach-out was moved just outside Senate HouseCatherine Lally

Although many attended lectures by academics not participating in the strike this morning, several hundreds of students gathered outside Senate House in solidarity with the striking staff, many carrying banners and standing on benches.

Speaking to Varsity at the CUSU rally, one student, Georgia Frimpong, expressed her belief that the pensions reforms “are one step in a long line of actions by the government to commercialise education”.

Students hoping to stand in solidarity with striking academics are, however, conflicted over whether to sign the petition launched by Caius undergraduate Tamara Brian recently. The petition demands that the University of Cambridge compensate students £300 for lost contact hours from strike days.

Some view the petition, which has reached over 600 signatures, as “putting [students] in a position of a consumer of a product,” as one student at the rally put it. However, many UCU members supported the idea. Speaking to Varsity, a picketer argued: “Students should take into account that education in this country has become ever more a commodity”, and viewed the petition as a way for students to “make their voices known”.

Staff and students gathered outside St Mary's ChurchVarsity

At 2pm, the strike action continued with the UCU’s first teach-out. Originally scheduled to be held at Great St. Mary’s, this was swiftly moved to the Senate House lawn to join the students who had been occupying it throughout the afternoon. Students occupying the grass in the sunshine were in high spirits, singing “Solidarity forever,” and “I’d rather be a picket than a scab.”

Anne Alexander, part of the organising group, stressed that the “teach-out programme is something we want to organise collectively with students.” She called for those attending to put forward suggestions for teaching themes, facilitating discussions ranging from anti-Prevent organising to “radical” labour organising “across class and racial lines.”

Students from Defend Education spoke to Varsity about their occupation of the Senate House lawn. Stella Swain urged students still attending lectures to “think about why you’re not supporting your lecturers,” as the “marketisation of education” also affects students’ futures. Matt Kite added that he hoped the occupation would “build a sense of solidarity between students and staff,” as he believes it is in the interests of the University to make students see their “interests opposed” to those of academics, when the engagement of students with the rallies shows that, “There can be meaningful solidarity.”


Mountain View

Cambridge staff to strike tomorrow – how will students be affected?

Priyamvada Gopal, a senior lecturer in the English Faculty, addressed academics planning on teaching during strike days, tweeting: “Your colleagues will be losing pay, large amounts of it. Remember, ‘collegiality’ isn’t only about ponderous language at meetings & sipping sherry together.”

Speaking to Varsity, Yaqoob addressed the Union’s preliminary plans to strike into Easter term: “We think that the employers would have to be extraordinarily intransigent and hostile towards their own staff if they don’t come back to negotiate.” He added that a strike during exam term “really is the ultimate last resort”.

The strikes are an attempt by the UCU to pressure universities to negotiate pension reforms proposed by UUK. The reforms involve the replacement of the defined benefit pension scheme with a defined contribution pension scheme for incomes under £55,000, a move which the UCU believes will make university staffs’ pension values riskier and less generous. The value of defined contribution schemes depends on returns from underlying investments rather than offering a guaranteed level of income upon retirement.

The strikes will continue into Wednesday of next week. They will then resume on Monday 5th March and continue for two additional weeks, after a meeting on the 2nd March which is set to discuss universities’ response to the first wave of strikes.