Karl Marx once said that “revolution” – the overthrowing of the current system, the rebellious actions of the employee against the employer – “is the locomotive of history”. Although it pains me to admit it, I must confess that upon hearing the news that there would be another round of UCU strikes held this semester, I was not invigorated with joy at the thought of boarding this particular locomotive. I found myself, for the second time this year, being offered its one-way ticket to the picket line – but it appeared that my thoughts on boarding would have little impact. The National Union of Students (NUS), who after all represents me, the student, had already accepted the ticket on my behalf. The NUS stated that they stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the UCU, thus making it rather awkward to ask: if um, actually, could I get off at “action-just-short- of-strike” station?
While I wished that I too could be swept up in the fervour that had apparently embroiled within its midst more than a few of my fellow students, in truth I felt deflated. The second round of strikes felt like a, well, strike out. (And no, I will not apologise for the pun, although I will admit it was low hanging fruit). I couldn’t help but begin to feel that, like the students of the Thatcher years, my time at university would come to be inextricably linked with, if not defined by, strikes – although, with a noted lack of milk snatching.
For those of you who know me, or at least who are subject to my incessant political retweets, this may come as somewhat of a surprising stance for me to take – even, god forbid, hypocritical. Cue gasp of horror. But before you snatch the copy of Marx out my hands, tear the poster of Che Guevara off my wall, or give me the same disparaging look that you give the girl in your tutorial with an Extinction Rebellion sticker on her laptop yet a disposable cup from Pret in her hand, please, at least hear me out.
I remember reading the Devil’s Advocate last semester in which I, alongside 76% of other students who voted, stated support for the UCU strikes. As everyone is already aware, this round of strikes, like the previous, will be carried out by UCU members across 61 universities in order to protest against planned changes to pensions, as well as to hold universities to account about their failure to address issues of pay, equality, and casualisation of workloads. So of course, last semester upon hearing that these were the deserved, reasonable, and justifiable ends that the strikes were in pursuit of, I was immediately on board and in support of any and all means that members of the union were taking to achieve them.
So, what changed? Why was I so in favour of the strikes last semester but now fail to muster the same level of enthusiasm? Worry not, for over Christmas break I was not swayed by bearing witness to every alt-right-nut’s favourite pseudo-university PragerU’s video published under the inflammatory yet catchy title “Public Union: Public Enemy”. In fact, I want to make it indubitably clear that my support for the ends the strikes are pursuing has not changed. Moreover, if it were up to me lecturers and university faculty would be rewarded financially to the same extent as the current unholy trinity of the free market – bankers, Bezzos, and reality TV stars.
But alas, I surmise that I am preaching to the choir – we are all in agreement that it is imperative that the demands of the UCU members are met. And if not, then I shall direct you to Jack Campbell’s section in the very Devil’s Advocate I referenced earlier where he lays out all the reasons why it’s essential to support the ends that the strikes are pursuing more eloquently than I could ever hope to. However, what has changed is my unquestioning support for the means of achieving these ends (strike action) which the UCU is pursuing.
Can you blame me for not feeling the same exuberance that some of us exhibited? There would be no the-strikes-are-like-a-two-week-holiday-way-hay from me: I get my holiday fill during the 5 months of the year that I spend in my small home town desperately trying to think of new ways to break up the monotony. I also have the affliction, to which you may relate, of being a massive geek – a condition I was diagnosed with by my peers way back in high school. Side effects of this include genuinely enjoying and looking forward to my classes each week that are delivered more often than not by truly inspiring and influential lecturers.
Due to this, the thought of losing the mere 2 hours of IR lectures that I savour every week saddens me greatly. Add to this the fact that this semester is comprised of a mere 11 weeks of teaching, and the maths is simple: any time lost only serves to limit further our already short time here. Furthermore, while delays in coursework are a manageable inconvenience for a second year student, I can only imagine the disruption and stress it will cause for those in their Honours years. I know that this is not the intention of any of the striking staff, but unfortunately it is a by-product, and now I can’t help but wonder if a different form of industrial action would be more effective – a form of industrial action where no third-party is unintentionally affected: one where you impact the institution and not the student.
A tutor last semester, who chose not to strike on the very grounds that it would impact the student, suggested that a better form of industrial action to take would be for faculty to stop submitting paperwork, completing admin, or replying to institutional emails, thus halting the institutions functioning, without disrupting student-faculty relations.
But my pontification on what could be will do little to change the fact that the strikes are to be an inevitability of this semester. In light of this, I have little choice but to cast my cynical gaze upon the renewal of a certain Vice Chancellor’s contract. (It’s at this point in the article, that my mother will frantically send me a text demanding to know if I am actively trying to get myself kicked out of this university. So, please Ms Mapstone, forgive me for my ensuing cynicism – for my mother’s sake.) In an email we received from our vice chancellor, it was stated that the strike action was a “national dispute” that could only be resolved at a “national level”. Maybe it is simply my wrongful interpretation, but I could not help but glean the sense that this email was conveying a relay of responsibility – a washing of the university’s hands, if you will. Pontius Pilate, take notes.
While it is true negotiations need to be had a national level, surely the institution is not, and should not be, merely a bystander. Obviously, I am not claiming to understand the complexities of pay disputes nor the intricacies of union workings. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that the university doesn’t seem to face the same, if any, barriers when it comes to raising the pay of a certain some of its members. According to the UCU, university vice chancellors’ pay has increased by 56.2% in the past decade, resulting in ours truly pocketing a healthy “basic salary” of £220,000 in 2018 (according to the Times Higher Education Survey).
As Jack surmised: “I know the University’s hands are mostly tied when it comes to lecturer pay, but to have such a great increase in pay for some while the majority of staff are seeing their financial compensation gutted does seem at best a touch unfair”. One can’t help but wonder if the some’ s increase in pay could have anything to do with the fact that she attends the remuneration committee meetings that decide her salary despite the UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, calling for all vice-chancellors to be barred from attending these meeting over concerns that the attendance of such people mars the fairness of the process of deciding executive salary… Do with this information what you will. I’m just stating facts, any conclusions drawn are your prerogative, oh nefarious reader.
In lieu of such revelations, my support for the faculty of this university is as strong as ever, but contradictorily my support for the strikes is not, as they seem to have provided some sort of get-out-clause for the university and its newly reinstated vice chancellor – “it’s a national issue” after all.
For now, however, I sit half-heartedly on this train, contemplatively turning the ticket through my hands, torn between wholeheartedly supporting the justified demands of the staff, angry that they even have to ask for such basic requests, yet simultaneously, feeling that there must be some better way to achieve them. We should not get off this locomotive of history, but perhaps we should switch the tracks by which to arrive at the final destination.
For more information about how the UCU strike action will affect you, head to: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/ industrial-action/