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At the end of September, the University and College Union (UCU) confirmed that they would open strike ballots at 152 institutions across the UK on 18 October – union members are now voting on two motions to strike. Ballots close next Thursday (18/10), and in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, industrial action could take place this side of Christmas, potentially as early as Week Five. Proposed strikes at Cambridge would be the fourth of their kind in as many years.

The two motions are the same as those that passed in 2020, which saw walkouts from thousands of staff at 74 institutions in the largest strike action in UK education history. The first motion concerns USS pensions, with the second concerning what the UCU call the “four fights” – pay inequality, pay deflation, job insecurity and rising workloads.

The National Union of Students (NUS) pledged their support for the UCU back in September, saying that if university vice chancellors and employers do not come to “a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff” then “students will hold employers responsible”.

Cambridge Student Union (SU) pledged to support potential striking workers in a motion passed on Monday (25/10) – the SU’s motion allocated £250 for posters, flyers and picket line support and resolved to “inform and educate students about the ballot and its results”.

The SU have caveated their support for potential strikes with a clause stating that “expressing solidarity should not come at the expense of academic performance”, and an amendment which ensures picket-line free access to the Student Services Centre at New Museums site.


Mountain View

Cambridge SU vote 69% in favour of supporting potential UCU strike

Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope wrote to staff in an email sent on 14 October that although he “understands the strength of feeling that exists across the sector” on pay and pensions, he was “extremely concerned at what a fresh round of industrial action would do to our students’ education after 18 extremely difficult months.”

University staff are integral to university life. This seems like a truism, but the potential for more UCU strikes before Christmas tells us a different story. Last night (25/10), the Cambridge Student Union (SU) voted 69% in favour of supporting strike workers, ahead of the University College Union’s (UCU)’s ballot to join strike action. The SU support strike workers and what they stand for: withdrawal of pension cuts, demands for pay equality, an end to zero-hour and other precarious contracts, and pay increase for all pay points.

I unreservedly support and recognise the effectiveness of strike action, yet I, as a student embarking on my all-important third and final year, can’t help but feel apprehensive. I’m not concerned with the purpose of the strikes, but on a practical level I have to acknowledge that every year of my undergraduate studies has been disrupted in some way: strikes interfered with my first year; COVID-19 radically affected my second year; and now, both COVID-19 and strikes are set to affect my third year. This amalgamation of disruptions may pale in comparison to the destruction of global pandemic or necessity of union strikes, but when I’m sitting (figuratively or literally) in my exam, no one will care if my Wi-Fi cut out during online lectures, or that I had to teach myself course content and comb through incomprehensible academic jargon without lecturer aid — or even have a panic attack over the possibility of crossing a picket line. I’m not concerned with strike action, but I am concerned by the possibility that this very real disruption will not be taken into account regarding my academic output.

“Transparency and continual communication between students, the SU, and UCU is crucial”

True, the SU has announced support for students affected by the strikes; notably, they will ensure picket-line free access to student services at New Museums Site. Transparency and continual communication between students, the SU, and UCU is crucial, but how can it be manifested? Lecturers could indicate their stance on the strikes to their students well in advance of the events themselves. This may be mixing education and ethics, but these are arbitrary boundaries. After all, if my lecturer proudly parades pictures of their children, then informing us on their strike action shouldn’t be classed as too “personal”.

Additionally, whenever a student misses a lecture, or needs to reschedule a supervision, it’s common practice to send a courtesy email. If lecturers involved their students more in their decision making, this could encourage a broadening of perspectives in and outside the classroom. Our education doesn’t stop once we leave the lecture hall: the 24-hour onslaught of various university emails should tell us that much. Encouraging open conversation about the realities of university life, for students, staff and faculty is vital. We all operate in this space, so surely, we should be holding up a mirror to the institution we subscribe to?

“awareness and acknowledgement of injustices [...]is a step in the process of addressing inequalities”

Just because we’re in a space of academia, this doesn’t mean we have to have tunnel-vision, and focus solely on our own courses. As shocking as this may be to some, I don’t live and breathe for my subject; but just in case my DoS or any future employers read this, I love my subject, I’m excited to pursue further studies — but I think it’s equally important to be aware of issues greater than yourself. Being ‘politically minded’ doesn’t necessarily entail standing on a soap-box. If that’s your mode of expression, then great, but having an awareness and acknowledgement of the injustices that are unfolding right under your nose is a step in the process of addressing inequalities, which sooner or later, you or someone you know will be affected by. Direct experience shouldn’t suddenly validate issues.

In true Cambridge fashion, I paraphrase the theologian, Martin Niemöller, to substantiate my point: “first they came for…and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a… […] then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” The strikes are highly significant and reflect wider issues on pay inequality, concern over pensions, workloads and greater equality failings, issues which pervade society in every industry and its institutions. Therefore, I support the possibility of UCU strike action, but am mindful of its caveats. Communication, not just lip-service and the odd email, between faculty, staff members and students is crucial, as are continual discussions about the realities of working and studying at the university. Students should be able to indicate whether their studies have been impacted by strikes, emotionally, or physically — and meaningful mitigation should be put in place, whether this manifests as adjustable workloads, exam consideration or alternative modes of assessment.

I want to look back at my third year and know I achieved my academic potential and supported important social causes, but whether this is a pipe-dream or reality, that’s to be decided.