The University of Edinburgh campuses have been swarming with activist energy over this past week, as discontented teaching staff have taken to the picket lines and gone on strike following the University and Colleges Union’s (UCU) decision to take industrial action over casual contracts, unequal pay and cuts to their pension funds.
This decision was supported by many sympathetic students, who have been active in solidarity with their lecturers during this time.
Striking staff rallied in Bristo Square on the first day of the strikes while graduation ceremonies were underway in McEwan Hall.
Leadership from UCU branches across Edinburgh and Scotland, as well as National Union of Students Scotland leader Liam McCabe spoke to the assembled crowd.
Speaking to The Student at the rally, Labour Party candidate who is seeking re-election in Edinburgh South Ian Murray said: “It is important if we want to retain world class universities that we have to retain word class staff and we can only do that by looking after them properly.
“I will support individual staff members, I will support the UCU and other unions as a collective and we will do all we can, not just to press individual universities but the universities industry as a whole, to make sure they are providing the pensions that they promised.”
“The economy of the future, the jobs of the future and the students of the future are going to rely on the people who are currently striking today, so we should give them all our solidarity.”
On Tuesday (November 26th), students and staff gathered in Teviot Row House for a panel discussion about the strike chaired by the vice president of the Edinburgh branch of Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), featuring striking teaching staff and sympathetic students.
Vivek Santayana, a striking tutor, decried the short hours and low pay tutors receive, claiming that they are paid only two hours for a semester’s worth of admin work, and that they are not paid enough hours to do the things they must do to ensure their students receive the education they need.
Santayana spoke about the existential threat faced by higher education across the country, claiming of University Administrators,
“Treating Universities like businesses and staff like disposable resources”. He also claimed of reasoning behind the UCU’s stand,
“The utterly appalling way in which the University prides itself on research quality and the student experience but delivers on this in such inhumane ways.”
Edinburgh University’s Student Association Vice President Welfare, Oona Millar, was also in attendance, pointing out the disproportionate effect of increased staff workload on students from marginalised groups, particularly young carers and students with learning disabilities.
Miller’s comments reflect the Student Association’s commitment to support UCU strike action as voted for in an emergency student council meeting. Many tutors and teaching staff at the University are employed on fixed term contracts, which can run for as little as eight months. According to the UCU, 68 per cent of research staff are on such contracts nationwide.
That same morning, a group of sympathetic students occupied the David Hume Tower (DHT) in George Square campus, echoing the 2018 round of strikes when similar actions were taken in the Gordon Aikman lecture.
In a social media public statement, the group said: “Students of the University of Edinburgh have occupied David Hume Tower in solidarity with striking workers.
“We will occupy the building until the demands put forward by the UCU have been met.”
Their demands, which are also some of the reasons for UCU members going on strike, include elimination of the pay gap between gender (15 per cent) and race (up to 26 per cent).
The group also demands an end to the handing of casual, precarious contracts to staff, which see tutors employed for as little as eight months at a time. Also, a more even balance of workload for teaching staff, without which often means that staff must work additional, unpaid hours to keep up with their duties.
The statement also included the following: “As students, we recognise that the conditions of all staff profoundly shape the learning conditions of all students.
“We are here as students to express that we will no longer accept the further marketisation and commodification of education and teaching.”
A student involved in the student-staff solidarity movement, and now occupying DHT, spoke to The Student:
“If the university refuses to listen to the workers, we will struggle alongside them and through avenues the workers can’t; an occupation feels like a great way to do this. The occupation is an open space for all students to come and support staff, while simultaneously offering a radical space where we can question and critique the university.”
The occupied DHT has become a space for students to attend workshops, discussions and teach outs.
Responding to the industrial action, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson said:
“The University respects the right of staff to take industrial action, and we understand the strength of feeling among staff over the issues that have led to the planned action.
“However, the HE sector as a whole faces economic challenges and pay and pensions need to be affordable and sustainable.
“We also have a duty of care to our students to keep any disruption to a minimum. We have measures in place to reduce the impact on our students and will offer them as much advice and support as possible. We still hope that further national negotiations can resolve the dispute.”
The current round of strikes are due to conclude on 4th December.
Image: Ellen Blair