Last week the Students’ Representative Council sent a strong message to both the University and the UCU by passing a motion that called for no new strikes to take place. The Union’s argument is that too much disruption has happened to student studies already and further strikes would be far too damaging.
This comes after national UCU leaders announced a further series of strikes to take place from Monday 16 to Friday 20 April. It also comes after The Saint reported on an email from a striking modern languages staff member de-scribing a boycott of exam marking as the UCU’s “unbeatable weapon”. At the time of writing the dispute seems far from being resolved. UUK have tabled another potential deal with the UCU which would lead to a joint council being established to properly research and compromise over a new system for staff pensions. However, with the UCU’s ballot on the said deal yet to be dated, 13 universities across the UK have announced the further strike action and it appears there is a consensus that the offer once again falls short of staff demands.
It seems clear that the initial row over staff pensions isn’t the entire issue here, at least not anymore. This dispute has escalated into a national debate over the very nature of academia as an industry. Amongst the concerns of the strikers are of course the proposed changes to their pensions which threatens to leave staff in some cases up to £10,000 a year worse off in retirement. However, a critical issue is how to attract the next generation to join an intensive industry that consists of much out-of-hours work that goes unpaid, little chance of a good retirement and as this current dispute shows, an industry where contracts appear to constantly be subject to change.
These issues aren’t isolated to academia by any means but for an industry so important in training the next generation of workers in all sectors, it’s a crucially important debate to be had.
So with the issues motivating the strikes being complex, important and multi-faceted it would appear that either the industrial action will continue or some hard-hitting negotiations will occur soon. Either way, it seems the strikes have already lasted longer than any interested party thought they would and indeed have had a more profound impact on the students than had been intended. Students have seen disruption to nearly a month of classes which has derailed much of the semester as a whole. Cancelled classes have either led to large gaps in students’ knowledge of their courses or led to problematic rearranged lectures or tutorials. Furthermore coursework has either gone unmarked or students have only received indicative feedback from some tutors. This has had a particular impact on honours students who have faced this disruption at the most crucial time of their studies. This is largely why the Union stepped in to call for a solution to be had as soon as possible. Further disruption to teaching would cause even more problems for students and disrupt an already troubled semester. Threats to boycott the marking of exams is a huge concern for graduating students who face the prospect of applying for jobs and masters’ programmes without an official grade on their degree. Whilst the strikes have been frustrating and confusing their impact overall has somewhat been relieved by the return to classes last week and unofficial help from some staff members. However, further action would potentially lead to the strikes having a disproportionate and unfair impact on the students’ immediate studies and their futures. The Union is right therefore to call for an end to further disruption of classes and examinations.
However, the issues raised previously do still remain and the striking staff may have little option but to continue their action if the proposed deal is not considered sufficient. The strike was already supposed to be the UCU’s last resort so where else can they go? As academics, the striking staff certainly do not want to ruin their students’ futures and as much as UUK and the individual Universities can be blamed for pushing through the unpopular and unnecessarily pessimistic pension reforms that led to the current situation, they don’t want to see the disruption continue either. Therefore, it is imperative that like the Union have asked the two conflicting parties come to a solution quickly. This can either be through the current proposed deal or with more serious negotiations.
So with the threatening of further disruption to our studies why should we still support the striking staff? The issue has divided the student body but it would appear a majority either support or at least sympathise with the striking staff. Additional strikes could threaten that. Though it may seem like a job in academia looks like a nice and well paid career, it is important to consider that there is a long road for aspiring academics before they get to a comfortable position. Those beginning their careers are not particularly well paid for their work and they are often working long hours akin to their senior colleagues. Furthermore, not all academics will reach the more comfortable level of being a professor or will be able to live handsomely off the profits of a successful book or two. Academia, like most industries, is a hard grind and those involved deserve a comfortable retirement, particularly if they have contributed towards it for many years. The next generation of academics includes many not much older than ourselves and many will be within our current student body. It is difficult to support the system the staff currently operate within, which sees University Principles’ on astronomical wages but is currently asking its frontline staff to tighten their belts. Additional strikes would cause increasing frustration and problems for students and the Union is right that this dispute needs a quick compromise. But even with the disruption the current staff and future generations of academics, at least in principle, deserve our continued support.