Why you should back your striking lecturers

You probably feel like you’ve seen this all before. Another round of strikes, another fortnight of inconvenience, another sanctimonious editorial telling you why you should be more sympathetic. It’s entirely understandable why students, driven by passionate interest in their subject, desire to attain good grades and, let’s face it, frustration at a lack of remuneration, would oppose the prospect of their lecturers striking.

Here’s the thing, though. It needs to be said, and said again and again, why you should be supporting your academics in their struggle to receive better working conditions.

The University and Colleges Union (UCU) have called for 14 days of industrial action over three weeks, beginning on 24th February and concluding on 13th March. Previous strikes in Wednesday, 26 February 2020 November were backed by the Students’ Association’s sabbatical officers, and that support looks set to continue, at least until a Student Council motion on the topic on 27th February. The Students’ Association, it should be noted, represents all students, including postgraduates who are taking part in the action.

What do UCU want? Why are they hijacking our lecture schedules and shitting over our seminar readings? What kind of depraved pretext are they offering for this unqualified fuckery?

Actually, it’s all pretty reasonable. The union is requesting modest pay rises to match inflation and compensate for a decade of cuts, a period in which staff pay has fallen by 20 per cent, in spite of their working longer hours. Its members want a move away from casualisation, an end to fixed-term and zero-hours contracts in universities. On top of this, they are demanding an established and legally-binding plan from employers to close gender and BAME pay gaps, with no rises in pension contributions. There will be lecture cancellations, but disability and counselling services will remain unpicketed to students.

Altogether, these strikes and their November predecessors cover 17% of all teaching time across the academic year. Partial compensation was given to students as a result of the action which took place in early 2018, but there is unlikely to be a repeat this year. In spite of that, an online petition has gone up, signed by 4500 people at the time of writing, demanding reimbursement. This exasperation is hardly surprising when one considers that English students pay around £9250 a year, while those who are based internationally can cough up upwards of £15,000.

Ever since the Cameron government increased the cap on fees to £9000, the ‘right’ to education has morphed into a scramble to find the best university deal. Consumerism, having taken over British life, has now infected the lecture theatres. In response to this change, universities have upped their promotion game, rolling out plush student halls and sexy prospectus-fodder.

The University of Edinburgh’s money is going towards new buildings it doesn’t need, vanity projects and frivolities and alpacas in George Square Gardens. Yeah, thanks for that.

Thank you particularly to Peter Mathieson, beloved principal and vice-chancellor. Any fraction of your salary of £342,000 would be entirely wasted on a teaching staff which earns under the average UK salary.

Our lecturers don’t want to strike. They are not being paid to strike. They are risking their livelihoods and their future career prospects, only requesting that their pleas are considered. This is a last resort, and hopefully will not become a regular occurrence.

Following the strike action of last November, UCU and the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) could not come to an agreement on the specified conditions of the industrial action, action which was backed by over three quarters of UCU members.

Staff want a 35-hour working week as a basis for their contracts. Stable contracts are essential to achieve fair working conditions and productive academic results. We don’t want unmotivated, dissatisfied workers in any profession, let alone one whose representatives are tasked with informing the future generation.

Universities have continually backtracked on prior agreements, and almost half make use of zero-hour contracts. This is not how it should be. A YouGov poll found that 40 per cent of lecturers had considered leaving the sector as a result of stress-related health issues.

Talented and enthusiastic academics are being frozen out of their chosen profession because of huge workloads instigated by the setting of unreachable targets. 

Are you going to moan about three weeks’ inconvenience? Or are you going to think about the bigger picture? Will you back the people who otherwise give up their time to assist in your learning? Support for the industrial action need not involve concerted effort or grandiose gestures. We can only encourage that you respect the right of any worker to strike should they believe their professional conditions are inadequate. Their conditions, after all, impact our own. We are fighting for the same goals. 

Joining rallies and crossing picket lines are decisions that are your own to make. No lairy editorial can force your hand, nor should it.

The least you can do is try to understand why this industrial action is happening and what your role in it can be, before you adversely judge your academic staff. For three weeks at least, think of them.

 

Image: Stinglehammer via Wikimedia Commons

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