• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

UCU and NUS hold joint rally outside Scottish Parliament

ByJoe Sullivan

Mar 2, 2022
Staff and students walking to a joint UCU and NUS rally outside Scottish Parliament.

On Tuesday February 23, the University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) hosted a joint rally outside the Scottish Parliament, which was attended by hundreds of university staff members on strike and interested student and community supporters.

The rally comes during a 10 day strike action by UCU branches across the UK, with staff picketing over a pay and working conditions dispute and a pensions dispute.

Tuesday’s event hosted several speakers, drawn from higher education staff and students critical of the current structure of UK higher education, alongside politicians and community supporters invited by the organisers who supported the ongoing higher education strikes.

NUS Scotland president Matt Crilly addressed shared areas of vulnerabilities between staff and students. He said:

“We’re here because students and staff in Scotland are being let down by the same education system.

Ad: Make your voice heard! Vote for your EUSA representatives here.

“We’ve been promised rent controls, how long can we afford to wait? We’ve been promised an Erasmus replacement, where is it? And while these promises were made, behind the scenes, they’ve been delivering real term cuts to our education.

“We are also here today because the same education system that is letting students down is letting staff down. As a student, I’ve seen my classes get bigger and bigger, while the same number of staff get more and more stressed.

“I am here because I know as a student that the same bosses that raise tuition fees and fail to invest in student services are the same bosses threatening your pensions and conditions.”

Lena Wånggren, UCU Scotland president and a researcher and teacher at the University of Edinburgh followed Crilly by stating the issues important to striking lecturers:

“In my past 10 years in Scottish higher education, working at 5 different universities, on 20 different contracts, never have I met a colleague who is not absolutely exhausted.

“This is not normal or sustainable. We have people leaving the sector because we are falling ill because we cannot afford to keep being on these horrible precarious contracts.

Wånggren also stressed the importance of student issues:

“We are also standing here in solidarity with our students. Students’ learning conditions are staff working conditions.

“Even though we try our absolute best to shield our students, if I have to teach a course in Glasgow in the morning, have a meeting with Liverpool in the lunchtime, and in the afternoon meet a student to supervise a dissertation at Heriot-Watt University, it is going to be difficult.

“Precarity is the worst.”

Michael Marra, Labour MSP for the list seat of North East Scotland and a former University of Dundee employee, spoke to the importance of a robust higher education sector. He said:

“Our education, our universities are the most important resource that this country has. This government needs to start acting like it.

“It needs to start paying the bills, it needs to make sure that we can have universities to be proud of.”

Marra also congratulated the hard work of university staff through the pandemic:

“I know, over the pandemic, how hard university lecturers and staff have worked, in incredibly challenging conditions, online working which for so many people has been so incredibly difficult.”

Maggie Chapman, Green MSP for the list seat of North East Scotland, former rector of Aberdeen University, and a former UCU member, noted the importance of free higher education to the crowd:

“I believe that education is a universal good and should always be free. Education should never be run for profit. Centres of learning and training should not be the cash cows of university management and pension schemes.”

Several other politicians also spoke to the crowd, and more were in attendance. Anas Sarwar, leader of the Scottish Labour party, watched the rally, but did not speak.

Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Fife and former party leader, expressed to the assembled crowd that his party was in support of the strike action. During his speech, he was interrupted several times by jeers from unidentified members of the crowd.

Kaukab Stewart, SNP MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, also expressed to the audience her party’s support for the strike.

Rozanne Foyer, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress stressed the importance of higher education trade unionism in the context of the wider trade union movement. She said:

“The bosses in education, just like the bosses across our country, have tried to reduce what is a human right and an essential public service into nothing more than a profit-making commodity, and we need to stop that.

“Education should be free and it is an essential public service, and that’s what we need to demand. Nothing more, nothing less.

“So let’s join up our fights. This is part of a bigger fight, this is why we’re facing a cost of living crisis in this country.

“We need to stop the bosses from sucking the profits out of our essential services, education and care and transport and energy, and we need to start fighting back.” 

Alyson MacKay, Vice-President Communities at Stirling University Students’ Union, spoke to the assembled crowd about her lived experience of interacting with the UK higher education system as a disabled student. She said:

“I’m from a small town in the Northeast. I grew up in an incredibly impoverished family. I’m a first-generation university student, I have learning difficulties.

“I didn’t think I would make it to university, but I foolishly thought that by the time I did, after working so hard in school for six years, putting everything I could into getting into a university, I really did think, maybe, just maybe, having a degree would be able to change my future, my family’s future so that the circle of poverty does not have to continue.

“But I’ve finished my degree, now I’m a sabbatical officer, I’m severely underpaid for the amount of work we do, and I don’t see this cycle changing anytime soon.

“Our lecturers, our staff, the commercial staff that work in these charities [universities’ legal structure], they are all underpaid.

“A charity is supposed to exist because a government is not filling a need. I see charities everywhere. Every single one of us here is a part of a charity. 

“Why do we still need a charity to provide basic education for our people?

“[Issues with higher education are] not a situation that’s just going to magically disappear, it’s a system that needs to be dismantled and rebuilt using fresh parts. I’m all for recycling, but this stuff cannot be reused.”

Several speakers expressed to the audience that they believed Tuesday’s rally to be the largest at the Scottish Parliament since the 2021 election.

The Student asked several people in attendance what they thought of the rally. Lauren Harper, a University of Stirling Politics and Philosophy student and chair of Stirling University’s Labour society, shared her view, saying,

“It was really good. It showed a big show of support for the UCU and their aims, and I think it really hammered home some important points to students especially, about how we face the same issues and are being done over by the same school.

“For so many students, I don’t think they quite realise that we are also affected, unless they are politically motivated like us here. You see them online complaining about the strikes every year. It’s like, we’re also being screwed over here.”

Euan Stainbank, a recent University of Stirling graduate and current Labour candidate for Falkirk’s upcoming council elections shared his disagreements with statements by politicians made at the event. He said:

“My one criticism might be that I think some of the politicians were able to come and whitewash their record. Why is a coalition-era Lib Dem politician allowed to be platformed here, when they’ve done so much damage and had the opportunity to actually change students’ material circumstances?

“When I was involved at university, getting politicians to really take a firm stance on this away from the party line was ridiculously difficult.

“If you want to make education free for everybody, make it free for everybody coming on this island, don’t make English students and Welsh students pay more and don’t give us a quota to fill up.

“That is blocking off opportunities for Scottish students to actually get into top-end universities and actually get the best education they possibly can, and it’s making English and Welsh students have to pay ridiculous amounts and go into ridiculous debt.”

Image credit: “UCU Walk to Parliament”, by Magnus Hagdorn

By Joe Sullivan

Hey there, I'm Joe! I'm The Student's Editor-in-Chief. I love reporting on local happenings here in Edinburgh, and am always looking for tips on what the paper should be looking in to or covering. If you'd like to tip me - or if you'd like to chat otherwise - I can be found at... Text, Phone, WhatsApp, Signal - 07876 154619 Twitter - @_josephsullivan Instagram - @joe92743 Secure email is available on request.