Following a record approval of over 80 per cent on ballots concerning both pensions and working conditions, UCU members nationwide have commenced another round of historic strike action. As 4th year students we’ve lost countless weeks of university to strikes, and have a right to be frustrated, especially considering the astronomical amounts we fork out for what we expect to be a full year of teaching. This anger is entirely justified – but it’s vital that it’s not misdirected.
The corporate line is that the cost of living crisis has made money tight across the board, but in some senses the university as an economy is booming: student numbers have increased by 29% over the period 2015-2021, while total tuition fees income has shot up by 96% at the same time. Yet staff are struggling, with even Peter Mathieson forced to claim over £17,900 to heat his home and relandscape his garden. On the other side of the hedges, (actual) staff pay has plummeted 17% in real terms since 2009. It’s not just that staff aren’t seeing pay rises, but with bigger class sizes they’re being asked to do more for less. Furthermore, with 42% of staff on casualized contracts, they’re working with an ever present grey cloud of anxiety above their heads and futures.
It’s not complicated – university management here and everywhere are milking both students and staff for all their worth in the name of profit. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book and we mustn’t fall into this trap. Staff and students must recognise their common enemy and stand together in solidarity.
It can be all too easy to agree with all of the above but not know where to start – or simply not be bothered. We are both incredibly guilty of this, but it’s important not to be immobilised by guilt. What distinguishes solidarity from general support for a cause is collective action; whether this is organizing a large protest or merely speaking to striking tutors to express your support. Start small: if you feel you support staff, it doesn’t take much to swing by the picket lines on the way to the library to listen and share your thoughts. Committing doesn’t mean taking hours out of your week. Staff don’t expect the world from you; concrete actions, however modest, show that students care. Real action is a recognition that these issues matter not just to your degree or the state of higher education more broadly – but are fundamental to the wellbeing and day-to-day lives of the entire university community. If you don’t know how to get started, there are countless great resources such as the Staff Student Solidarity Network (@sssn_edi on Instagram) or the UCU website where you can find data, staff testimonies, and tangible ways to get involved. From our experience the appreciation staff show for any kind of student solidarity is genuinely uplifting and joyous – particularly against the backdrop of such a prolonged and vicious attack on our shared education.
Physical actions in the real world offer a level of communal connection which no amount of social media presence can access. In the midst of strikes which have interrupted so much of our education, this shared struggle is more educative than an hour of awkward silences in tutorials could ever be. This is real – real people, involved in real disputes which are already affecting their and our future. Education is just one of countless sectors in crisis and 2022 has seen the most coordinated worker response in recent memory. It’s history, and we should be excited and proud to stand with the people already fighting for it.
At this difficult and vital time, staff appreciate all the help they can get, so set yourself the easy goal joining one picket, no matter how briefly, and talking to one member of striking staff.
Bring your best biscuits or your biggest thermos flask, and make the time – you’ll feel much better for it.