Students carry banners calling for vice-chancellor Stephen Toope to address questionsMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Almost two weeks after strikes began in Cambridge, over one hundred students gathered in solidarity with university staff outside of Senate House today.

In collaboration with Cambridge’s Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) led a rally and subsequent march through Market Square and along Sidney Street, in protest of proposed changes to university pension schemes, with around 200 students in attendance.

CDE calls on Toope to address students’ demands

Monday was the sixth day of strike action by staffMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Cambridge Defend Education called upon Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope to publicly address students in a rally scheduled for Thursday 8th March. One CDE speaker warned that if the demands of staff are not fulfilled, students “will escalate” their collective action, and will “begin seizure of [University] spaces”.

Since strikes began on Thursday 22nd February, the University has indicated its greater flexibility on the issue of pension reforms. On Thursday 2nd March, Toope sent an open letter to university students and staff which urged national bodies “to agree [sic] a pragmatic solution to bring to an end the current dispute”, acknowledging that the dispute has “understandably, led to anger from staff and anxiety from students”. Toope has also proposed a number of potential solutions which the University is considering, such as the University paying increased contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Speaking to Varsity, Cambridge UCU Secretary Dr. Waseem Yaqoob said that he “welcome[d] the VC’s view that the University is ‘prepared to consider’ an increase in contributions to sustain the pension scheme”, but added that the claim that Cambridge “would need to cut teaching and services to afford a modest increase in contributions is deeply implausible”.

Toope has also suggested a potential Cambridge-specific pensions scheme if UCU and UUK fail to produce a long-term solution in present negotiations. Speaking to Varsity at the rally, HSPS student Rufus Jordana called such a proposal “completely inadequate”, arguing that “Cambridge has to stand up for public education across the country”.

Regent House also passed a Grace last Wednesday signed by 501 members which resolved “that the University shall continue to offer a competitive defined defined benefit pension scheme”, going against Universities UK (UKK) proposals to replace the defined benefit scheme for incomes under £55,500 with an entirely defined contribution scheme.

UCU member Anne Alexander cited the Grace in her speech as a sign of success of staff and student pressure, but assured that picketers “will continue to fight through any means necessary”.

CUSU presidential candidates weigh in on strike action, students’ welfare

Emrys Travis, candidate for disabled students’ officer, at Monday’s rallyMathias Gjesdal Hammer

The strike action comes amid mounting discussion about students’ welfare and relevant provisions, particularly from CUSU.

This week’s CUSU and GU elections saw strikes come up as a prominent topic. CUSU presidential candidates Evie Aspinall, Connor MacDonald, and Siyang Wei all publicly support students standing in solidarity with picketing academics and staff.

Speaking to Varsity, CUSU presidential candidate Evie Aspinall reiterated the importance of students’ collective action, saying that “staff deserve our full support in the strike”, while presidential candidate Connor MacDonald has said that “in solidarity I and my campaign will not be crossing picket lines to campaign”.

Siyang Wei, who was present at the rally outside of Senate House today, echoed a similar sentiment in their statement to Varsity, saying that they “stand in solidarity with striking staff” and that they regard the strikes as “a moment of optimism and potential” where “we’ve seen the power of students and staff working together”.

However, both Aspinall and MacDonald have sharply criticised CUSU’s attitude toward students’ welfare during the period of strike action. Speaking to Varsity, Aspinall said that CUSU has “addressed [student welfare] only as an afterthought”, while MacDonald criticised CUSU as having “failed to condemn abusive statements toward students trying to cross the picket line to attend lectures” and as having “shown an unwillingness to consider the wide and diverse spectrum of student needs”.

Wei, although acknowledging students’ concerns given “a lack of information from different departments or a general sense of disruption”, added that the “opening [of] the CUSU lounge as a study space” is helping students “to minimise the impact of missed contact hours”. They also defended CUSU in providing advice to students on what they “can do to support the strikes if they feel they must” cross picket lines.

CUSU Council undecided over motion to call for refunds, but condemn ‘harassment’

Around 200 students turned up to the rally, organisers saidMathias Gjesdal Hammer

CUSU Council voted tonight to support emergency motion calling for the union to condemn allegations of ‘harassment’ of students by striking picketers, proposed by Christ’s JCR vice-president Oliver Jones and Homerton JCR vice-president Ben McGuigan. The Council did not take a stance on calling for refunds however, as the motion was withdrawn following extended and intense debate.

Several students spoke to Varsity last week about feelings of being uncomfortable or threatened by picketers, including one incident in which a second-year Law student was told to “go and f*** yourself” after he told picketers that although he supported the strike, he still wished to attend his lecture.


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CUSU Council fails to set strike refund policy after debate splits students

CUSU Council supported the motion, which condemned harassment and called for CUSU to help student reconcile with academics after strikes have finished, with no votes in opposition.

Another motion, asking for CUSU to support a petition calling for the University to offer a “proportional” refund to students for lost teaching, was dropped, after its proponent chose to withdraw the motion. The decision came after almost 40 minutes of debate on the issue, with Council seemingly split between those who supported direct refunds and those who supported the money being redirected in a University hardship fund. For now, CUSU remains without a policy on the issue, which has already seen one rival petition gain over 1,100 votes.

Some attendees at Council cited the disproportionate impact of strike action on humanities students as reason for direct financial compensation, as significantly fewer science lectures have been cancelled due to picketing lecturers.

Strike action is expected to continue for the remainder of Lent term, affecting every teaching day except for Friday, 9th March.

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