As I write, protestors are occupying Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange; the world is recovering from a weekend of political action across cities and continents; and a campaign for “global democracy” has been launched. And yet little of this subversive spirit has penetrated St Andrews, as thus far there still remains a distinct lack of outcry over the changes that are rippling through Higher Education at present.
In fact, most students have probably not even noticed that many academic staff members at this university are currently engaged in a ‘work to contract’. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) across the country are taking this action in remonstrance against changes that are being implemented to staff pension schemes. These changes have already been opposed by the Union and yet employers have chosen to go ahead with them regardless.
This action is designed not to disrupt our learning, but to put pressure on management at this and other universities. Universities rely heavily on the extra-hours that its staff members put in, for the most part unpaid. By taking away these extra hours, staff members are trying their best to send a clear and defiant message to the powers that be.
As students and indeed as citizens of a free society, we should support and encourage not only the UCU’s actions but also those of the occupiers who are currently camping-out in the shadows of St Paul’s cathedral.
There is a deep-set attitude of defeatism in this country that has been born of Tory-Lib Dem rhetoric. We are told by the government that the only way to solve the economic crisis that we currently find ourselves in is to “cut the deficit” as quickly as possible. We are told that the way to do this is to cut spending on the public sector (including pensions), to essentially privatise Higher Education and to effectively dismantle certain aspects of the welfare state. We are told that we are all in this together, that everyone will have to make sacrifices in some sort of twisted, Blitz-esque display of “solidarity”. We are told that putting up with all of this is the only way we can save ourselves from an unfathomable future of doom and gloom the likes of which this country has never seen before.
The reality is that every policy that has been implemented by this government is a deliberate choice. This is not the only way – this is the Tory way. There are other options to recoup the country’s losses, such as significantly increasing taxes on the super-rich, which have not been explored because they are ideologically abhorrent to the powers that be. We tend to forget this. We tend to believe what we are told and fail to argue back.
UCU members and dissident campers are therefore fighting battles that need to be fought – against unfair actions being taken by their employers, but most importantly against the ideology of decision-makers in this country more generally. Debates and arguments on a public scale are the ones that we need to have, otherwise what is the point in democracy? For our true democratic power comes not from the ballot paper we fill in once every five years, but from our ability and willingness to protest and argue against our elected representatives.
Whether or not you support the UCU’s aims is beside the point. We should support actions taken by trade unions, protesters, and occupation groups because they are utilising the rights and living up to the responsibilities that the law in this country provides us all. You may disagree with them. If this is the case then argue back, but do not dismiss those who are fighting for a cause.
This university has already made decisions that are worthy of opposition. It is a shame that, with the exception of a select few, the student body here have not taken the opportunity to question university management about these decisions. We may mutter to one another in private, but we do not speak out. We have not even dared to ask the difficult questions, let alone demand satisfactory answers to them.
Apathy has always reigned in this town, but with the situation in this country becoming bleaker and bleaker, I challenge the student body to finally make the most of the zeal and energy that youth affords us. We need to argue back, and we need to do so now. St Andrews, now is your chance to finally take a stand.