Many staff have been out on the picket lines, but few have been scientistsLouis Ashworth

Following the strike action that swept Cambridge this past week, many students and staff have reported a disparity between the effect of the strikes on the sciences and the arts and humanities, noting that significantly fewer science lectures have been cancelled as a result of striking staff.

The deputy head of the Engineering Department (Teaching), Dr Claire Barlow, called the impact of the strikes on her department “very slight”.

“To my knowledge, the only disruption has been that a couple of lectures have not been delivered,” she said.

Students often receive credit for attending laboratory sessions and have therefore been anxious about missing due to the impact on their degree success, which has led to CUSU coming under fire for advising students not to cross picket lines.

The students’ union has adopted a position of solidarity with striking staff, passed at CUSU Council. In its official guidance it suggests students should “avoid crossing picket lines” and “organise study groups to make up for lost teaching.”

While this advice was recognised by some as well-intentioned, several science students raised concerns regarding its applicability to their degrees. The advice has put some students in difficult positions, since their marks are directly impacted by not showing up.

Barlow, however, confirmed that “no labs have been affected” in the Engineering faculty.

First year engineering student Jenn Chan added that the strikes’ impact on science students has been disproportionately small, with a greater proportion of them choosing to cross picket lines in order to attend lectures and labs which are still running. Chan said that “there have been very few visible signs of the strike around the engineering department”.

The reasons for science departments’ relatively low strike turnout are manifold. Although Barlow declined to comment on the reasons behind individual staff decisions within the engineering faculty, she noted that “very few of [the department’s] academic staff are union members”.
Several science students spoke to Varsity about their discussions with supervisors and lecturers.

Hannah Kossowska-Peck, a natural sciences student, pointed to the nature of the contracts held by staff from science faculties, which generally have a greater number of international staff, thus perhaps less likely to be members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) and therefore fewer may be eligible to strike. She suggested that since many lecturers have employment contracts linked with their research opportunities, they may be less willing to sacrifice opportunities to continue this research.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested that, due to the marketable nature of many science skills, it may be easier for discontent academics to seek careers working outside of academia, for businesses or in the field. Her sentiments were echoed by an engineering student, who remarked that it is common for staff in the department to have spent time working for private companies prior to, or alongside, their work within the University and they may therefore be entitled to different pension schemes.

With students rallying in solidarity with the strikes and much discussion urging students to support striking academics, some students have voiced concerns about the strikes’ disproportionate effects on their education.


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When asked about the disparity in lecture attendance on strike days between humanities and science students, a first-year mathematician, who chose to remain anonymous, told Varsity “I think it’s much easier to catch up on a humanities lecture than a science lecture” adding that “due to the more technical nature of the sciences, you really rely on the lecturer’s explanation.”

Meanwhile, Jenn Chan, an engineering student, said that disparities in number of contact hours may have affected students’ choices: “Humanities students in general have fewer contact hours and more of their study time is independent, so missing a day of lectures isn’t as damaging to their education as it could be for science students.”

The issue of students crossing picket lines is further compounded by the need for lab and practical work in many undergraduate science courses. Belinda, a Natural Sciences student, described labs as “an experience that you physically cannot learn out of a book,” while another student emphasised that, unlike lectures, labs are “compulsory” and “attendance is recorded.”

Belinda noted that simply choosing not to cross a picket line “can damage your education and future prospects”.

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