‘More strikes: to cross or not to cross the picket line!’

Unless you have been living under a rock – and didn’t notice the countless emails in your university mailbox – you will be aware that the second round of strikes is in motion right now with the University of Exeter being one of the 74 universities on strike across the country.  You can see which universities are striking for which particular reason here.  

74 members of the University and College Union (UCU) began 14 days of strike action on Thursday 20th February; the largest wave ever seen on UK campuses. The UCU has a membership of 120,000 – the largest further and higher education union in the world – demonstrating not only its power in numbers but also its strength as a union in negotiating with some of the best universities in the UK and the world.

The strikes are set to increase in length over four weeks. Starting with two days last week, three this week, four the following week; concluding with five full consecutive days of striking from Monday 9th to Friday 13th March.

What are the disputes over?

1. Pay and Working Conditions

The casualisation of workers, in particular, is a significant issue. There are severe concerns over the lack of job security as a result of increasing short-term contracts. One member of staff, in particular, I spoke to has been working for the university for several years and has yet to receive a formal contract – meaning at the end of each year, they face the prospect of becoming unemployed. In addition, staff are experiencing heavier workloads and pay disparity in relation to gender and ethnicity.

2. Pensions

Regarding disputes over the sustainability of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (private pension scheme for higher education institutions in the UK). The dispute relates to changes to the scheme, seeing an increase in the contributions made by staff and employers. Universities say this is needed to sustain the pension scheme, but of course, the UCU denies this.

Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith has talked of his wish to ‘resolve these institutional dilemmas’ through ‘working closely with colleagues, trade unions and student representatives’, particularly through the Fair Employment For All working group. Personally, this seems more like a PR measure to damage control than real progress.

I spoke to a member of staff, who said: “I definitely do support the strike…the issues of pensions and temporary contracts are important to me. The fact that getting a permanent appointment as a lecturer is difficult and without the sense of job security that it brings, it is an important issue.”

This comment depicts in a nutshell what staff are striking for.

Even if members of staff are not engaging in this particular form of last-resort industrial action, some are already engaging in ‘actions short of a strike’. Including refusing to cover for absent staff or rescheduling lectures affected by the strike.

Impact on us – the fee-paying students?

Cancelled lectures, cancelled seminars…or not? How will we know? The point is that the nature of these strikes is intended to cause as much disruption as possible. At the discretion of the staff member – if they so choose – we are informed of their position on the strikes and are left to make our own decision.

The Students’ Guild conducted a student poll from 10th– 12th February to gauge the views of students. The result was interesting: 85% of those who voted said they supported the cause of industrial action, but a significantly lower 37% supported strike action, down 4% from the November strikes. The Students’ Guild website even has a dedicated page for information on strike action, which you can take a look at here.

An estimated 1 million students were affected nationally because of the last strikes starting in November, but the full extent remains to be seen. Already, I have received emails from subject departments informing me of deadline retentions/extensions due to the industrial action.

One student I spoke to who does not support the strikes said: “The strikes have meant a significant amount of learning time for students has been disrupted or lost, putting our grades at risk. It is also unfair that we are not getting the most out of the extortionate tuition fees that we pay.” I cannot help sympathising with this statement, whilst feeling that I too should boycott along with tutors and lecturers. It is the students the university will listen to.  

Whereas another student, whose timetable is literally empty for the next four weeks, commented: “I feel that all my academics have ensured that as students, we are being supported. In the best way possible…therefore I have been able to support my tutors in their choice to strike, whilst continuing with my studies.”

Fellow students will have almost their entire timetable affected, whilst some will not experience a cancelled seminar or lecture – seems fair for the price we pay, right?  

A first-year student – does this bode well for the next 3 years?

Since I started university in September it seems as though serious dissatisfaction is entrenched in members of staff. The last series of strikes were something I and many others had never experienced before.

Nonetheless, the staff members striking are not taking the decision lightly. Some lose thousands in wages and face considerable stress in the workplace. Personally, I have the utmost respect for those on strike. And whilst my timetable currently looks depressingly empty, resources have been provided for me on the Exeter Learning Environment so I can continue my studies in the meantime.

I hope there is a resolution to be found. I do not fancy another three years of disruption or unhappy academics teaching me, particularly for the £9250 per year I load up in debt. I did choose not to cross the picket line last term however I am unsure whether I too will boycott once more. It is the choice of all students to determine their position and use their voice to make sure the university listens. We put the money in their pockets, after all.

*Thank you to the students and staff members who granted me permission to use their comments anonymously and took the time to speak to me.

**I contacted Steve Smith’s office for a comment and received no response.

Written by Jess Mahon

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