The Joint Councils of the Students’ Association have voted down a motion in support of the UCU strikes, during their last meeting of the semester on Tuesday 19 November.
“Motion to call on the SRC to offer support to University of St Andrews staff in taking strike action for 8 days from November 25th” was proposed by Peter Beckett and seconded by Ashab Ahmad, noting that the Joint Councils unanimously passed a similar motion in February 2018 to support the UCU strikes.
However, the decision was close: according to a student who was present, 10 Joint Councils members voted against the motion, 9 voted in favour, and four abstained.
On the decision, President of the Students’ Association Jamie Rodney said publicly, “I appreciate there are people who will feel disappointed or even betrayed by this decision: the burdens that are being placed on academic staff are immense and unfair, and I’m keenly aware that a lot of those striking are postgraduate students who I represent.
“The disagreement with the motion was not one of ideology, but one of tactics. The sabbatical team at the union has, for the past few months, been avoiding directly backing either party in the strike. This is to avoid a repeat of last year when, by taking a position on the strikes, the Student’s Association pretty much shut itself out of negotiations, and lost its ability to hand out information as a neutral party, while achieving basically nothing in return.”
While the Students’ Association announced their support of the strikes as they began in February 2018, they Students’ Representative Council later called upon the UCU and University to refrain from further strike interruptions. This came after The Saint‘s investigation which found UCU emails that called an exam boycott their “unbeatable weapon.”
Mr Rodney stated, “Our approach this year has allowed us to give students more of a voice in those meetings, secured pay from striking lecturers being put in student hardship funds, and allowed us to help students and staff in general.
“I’m happy to say that we’re still doing most of the things that were called for in the motion (giving the UCU access to union spaces, lobbying on behalf of students supporting the strikes, and, most importantly, supporting striking postgrads), but passing the motion would have put us in a weaker position to do so.”
As of the Joint Councils meeting on Tuesday, 58 students had signed the motion.
The motion comes ahead of the UCU strikes taking place from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December, where members at over 60 UK universities backed strike action over challenges the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and over working conditions and pay.
83.49% of voting UCU members at the University of St Andrews backed strike action over changes to the USS, and 82.55% backed strike action over pay and working conditions.
The motion cited that the right to strike is a human right. Additionally, it drew attention to the University’s ranking in 2019 by the National Student Survey for first in student satisfaction. It quoted the Proctor, Professor Clare Peddie, when she said, “What really makes St Andrews special is the staff… whose outstanding contributions make us bigger and more meaningful than our size suggests.”
The motion also stated, “The management of the University of St Andrews has suggested that this is a national dispute which can only be resolved at a national level. However, the Principal of the University of St Andrews, Professor Sally Mapstone, is an elected member of the Universities UK (UUK) board, to 31 July 2022.”
Mr Beckett, who proposed the motion, told The Saint, “Obviously we are disappointed that the motion didn’t get passed as we felt that it would have best served the interests of the students at this institution. However, there was only one vote in it, and the nature of the debate demonstrated that the council was entirely sympathetic towards the striking members of staff. The reason it was voted down was because of a disagreement on tactics. It is clear that there is popular support amongst the student body for the UCU cause.”
Ahead of the eventual lack of support from the Joint Councils, the motion claimed “that absence of support for the UCU by the SRC would be a position of antagonism towards the UCU rather than one of neutrality.”
It also encouraged the Joint Councils to stand in solidarity with members of staff who were striking, encourage the University not to punish the absence of students from classes in week 11 (affected by the strikes), to disseminate information about the strikes and how to support them, and “to encourage the senior management at the University of St Andrews to urge the UUK and UCEA to respectively abandon the changes to the USS and pursue meaningful dialogue on pay and working conditions.”
On moving forward, Mr Beckett said, “As for what’s next, we are going to have a few UCU representatives answering students’ questions on the strikes on Friday at 18:30 in Sallies School II. We would encourage students to attend this event, as the strikes in 2018 were plagued by misinformation.”
Mr Beckett also told The Saint that if students are interested in supporting the strikes, they should read up on both sides of the argument, avoid crossing the picket lines, talk to their lecturers and tutors to express solidarity, and send emails to the Proctor. He added, “If people don’t have time to compose an original email themselves, they can find a template on the St Andrews Socialist Society’s Facebook page.”
Mr Beckett added, “So far, university communications have been somewhat misleading, and this is something that we, working alongside the Students’ Association, are keen to address.”
Mr Rodney ended his public statement by noting, “If people do feel angry about the motion not passing, please take it out on me rather than on the other councillors [and] sabbaticals. I’m the one who deserves it. Equally, if there are any messages you’d like me to take to University management, please get in touch.”