Students supporting the UCU strike actionMATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER

As CUSU Education Officer I spend my time arguing for student needs to be provided for and put first, for staff to work in ways that help not hinder students and for this university to be set up to give all students the best chance of success. Surely then, I would be the last person to support four weeks of escalating strike action that will see lectures and seminars cancelled, library staff on strike and the workings of the university severely disrupted at a crucial time for students. However it is with the exact same values and interests that I argue for students to get the best education possible in every committee meeting I sit in, that I wholeheartedly support this strike.  

The characterisation of this strike as a conflict between staff interests and student needs is not only false, but damaging. The immediate impact of the strike hurts both students and staff together, but the long term impact of its failure would hurt both groups to a much larger degree. The fight over pensions is the same fight that students have been having about fees, interest rates, extortionate rents and about the lack of funding for graduate study. It is just in a new iteration that is one step removed from being about what is going directly out of students’ pockets. The transformation of universities from public bodies to corporate entities, that will take every penny they can from students as they slash staff costs, hurts us all. It is imperative that we realise that our collective destiny as students is intrinsically tied to what happens to our staff.

The transformation of universities from public bodies to corporate entities, that will take every penny they can from students as they slash staff costs, hurts us all.

The cuts to higher education have resulted in a crucial moment in our history. This can be hard to see as the vast majority of us entered higher education at a time when fees were already prohibitively high, funding grants for graduate study were already a distant memory, and universities were already set on a path of investing in image rather than substance. However we must not lose sight of how these things are related to what is still happening around us. Although fees have gone up over 900% in the last 20 years, the real terms pay of staff at this university has gone down by 15-20% in just the last 9, on top of increasing workloads. This means a worse educational experience for students as the lecturers, librarians and admin staff we rely on to deliver the education that we pay so much for are less able to invest time in delivering quality care and academic support.

It is essential that universities remain a site of critical and radical thought in society and this is impossible with overstretched and under-resourced staff. The government is maintaining a discourse around ‘value for money’ while hundreds of thousands of students will be left with a lifetime of debt, with the poorest students hit hardest and the amount universities are spending on teaching provision is decreasing. None of this is in the interests of students; both economically and academically our education is being destroyed.

It is irrefutably our fight. We must support the strike however we can.

However this is not the only way in which what happens to staff in this pension dispute is inherently linked to our interests as students. At this university, academia is the future that many students see for themselves. Those studying now may want to find themselves in academic professions in the coming years. And yet this could become an impossible future for a large number of those who want to pursue knowledge, research or teaching. These changes will determine who can afford to participate in the future of the academy. Much in the same way that continually rising tuition fees won’t stop the wealthy from attending university, these cuts will prevent those most marginalised from being able to have a voice in our academic community. We will lose working class academics, academics of colour, women academics and disabled academics at a much faster rate, as those already economically disadvantaged won’t be able to afford the risk of being left on a poverty pension. This will result in not only a restricted education for future students but the loss of essential stories, perspectives and research for society as a whole.

This is a bleak picture of the future, but this fight is not over. It took Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor, only two days to cave to the outrage of staff and students and demand that negotiations were resumed. Only an increase in student pressure can ensure that these negotiations are substantial, and not merely a distraction aimed to end the strikes without meaningful change that will ensure that staff are properly compensated for a lifetime of hard work.

Supporters of the strike gather outside Senate HouseMATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER

It is important to remember that we are not alone in this fight. Students up and down the country are occupying university buildings and protesting on the streets because they understand just what is at stake not only for staff but for students as well. Staff are standing out in the freezing cold, unpaid and nervous for their futures because they also understand what is at stake, not just for themselves but for the students they teach, and those who will be coming to university in 5 or 10 or 50 years time. We are reliant on each other. This is a fight that we both win or we both lose.


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It takes an admirable amount of courage to stand with those facing injustices that don’t affect you, but this is not what I am asking from students when I encourage them to engage with and support the strike. This is a fight for the future of our education system. For the dignity and protection of those who we rely on to guide us, for the makeup of the academic world which many of us wish to inhabit and for the insistence that marketisation of the higher education system hurts all of us who exist within it. It is irrefutably our fight. We must support the strike however we can.

 


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