"Strikes mean missed contact hours, lost teaching and missing out on valuable content"Lucas Maddalena

Members of the Cambridge branch of UCU, alongside staff at Universities across the country, have voted for a strike. This means that sometime soon, despite the incredible disruption of the last two years, student lectures, seminars and teaching will once more be cancelled. There are legitimate grievances between staff and management (though, as past years prove, they are not likely to be solved with a strike). But regardless of what you think of the action itself, it is clear that Cambridge SU, the body that is meant to represent us, is failing to stand up for our interests.

At the last Student Council meeting a motion proposed by the current sabbatical team was passed, committing the SU to supporting the strikes with no conditions, no matter what - giving UCU a blank cheque. This was the wrong move. Instead of defending our interests and trying to strike a balance between students and staff, the SU has taken an outmoded idea of solidarity and applied it uncritically and inappropriately.

Strikes mean missed contact hours, lost teaching and missing out on valuable content. They mean students missing out on the practical skills they should be learning in labs. They mean students not getting the lectures, labs and seminars hours we are paying massive amounts of money for. There is no situation in which fewer contact hours for students doesn’t negatively impact the student experience.

“There is no situation in which fewer contact hours for students doesn’t negatively impact the student experience”

None of this is to say that lecturers and academics do not have good reason to be angry with university management. UCU exists to represent these academic staff to the university, and if they have decided to call for a strike that is their right. But as well as the interests of academics, the interests of students must also be taken into account: industrial disputes affect our education and our learning. Cambridge SU should be standing up for students during these strikes, and fighting to mitigate their impact on student experience; instead, out of a mistaken desire to show solidarity, they have been reduced to simply repeating UCU’s points, leaving students with no real representatives.

In response to this, many have trotted out the line - familiar to third and fourth years from the last round of strikes - that the strike is in the long-term interest of students as well as staff. We are sceptical of this claim: it seems that strikes in the past have resulted in no long-term victories and no lasting change to the student experience. But even if it were true, we do not live in the long term. Most of us are at this university for only three years, and changes that come after the end of our degree cannot possibly make up for the losses imposed on us. It should be the job of the SU to represent us during the strikes and mitigate their impact on students; instead, mistakenly trying to take the “long-run” view, they are throwing away any chance students had to get a seat at the table.

“It should be the job of the SU to represent us during the strikes”

Students were subjected to a round of strikes just two years ago - third-year students will have had just one term that hasn’t been disrupted. In previous rounds, an SU sabb called for disabled students to avoid going to vital appointments at the DRC because it was behind a picket line; students were openly called scabs for prioritising their education; some were even harassed as they walked past picket lines. Despite positive changes this time round ensuring that pressure won’t come from the very top of CamSU, the febrile atmosphere of name-calling and blaming students who “cross picket lines” has already started. We cannot trust that our elected representatives will in any way stand up for students who have the “wrong” political opinion on the strikes.

In a Varsity article defending CamSU’s move, an anonymous student quotes Niemoller’s famous words about the rise of the Nazis. The idea that the situation of academics at Cambridge is even remotely comparable to that of Jews in the Third Reich is deeply offensive, but it goes to show the degree to which many have lost sight of the realities of the situation. As it happens, there truly is no one left to speak for students. The people we’ve entrusted to stand up for us are looking out for UCU. The Student Council has allocated hundreds of pounds not to supporting those of us impacted by lost teaching, but instead to “posters, flyers and picket line support”. Our money is being used to buy Gregg’s for striking lecturers. Amazingly, the motion calls for the SU to “educate” us as to how we can support the strikes, and not (for example) as to how we could catch up on our lost learning.


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None of this is to say that UCU is necessarily wrong to strike. That is a different discussion for a different article. The issues at hand are complex and affect both Cambridge and the whole UK University sector. But despite what the name might suggest, students’ unions are not trade unions: their purpose is to represent students and look out for our interests, not those of workers. They should be using their budget to support student welfare, they should be using their energy to stand up for students, they should be passing motions condemning the fact that students are collateral damage in fights over pensions. CambridgeSU should let UCU stand up for staff; their job is to look after us.