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CLASH OF COMMENTS: Do you support the UCU staff strike?

Was the walkout justified?

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Image Credit: Patrick Walker

YES- Patrick Walker
As we reported in the news section, the staff that are striking at this University never wanted to walk out. As one said to me in my seminar two weeks ago, he “just wants to teach the Asian space race” without the threat of decreasing pay and awful hours. Students should be behind our lecturers for fighting for better teaching conditions that will ultimately benefit us anyway. Why are we so keen to criticise a movement that will result in more engaged lecturers with more time for students?

Students need to drop all the illusions of liberalism if they’re going to criticise legitimate strike action. How can British universities pretend to be hotbeds of moderation if we abandon it all once we’re affected by progress even a little bit? Why don’t we all take our early breaks, accept that most departments will have contingency plans, and get on with our normal duties of ignoring holiday summatives?

University staff, according to research by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) are currently paid 17 per cent less in real terms according to the Retail price index (RPI) since 2009. This is the calculation that the government supports: UCU, the Union that supports York staff, believe that figure may be as high as nearly 21 per cent. If that kind of wage cut isn’t worth a walk-out, I don't know what is.

At York, for some staff, this pay cut has coincided with an unsustainable increase in hours, that has had some lecturers working long days with no weekends. Ironically, the highest drain is placed on the most popular lecturers. This ultimately means that they must either sacrifice teaching work for research that doesn't benefit students, or favour lecturing time, sacrificing York’s great international reputation for the sake of the teeming masses. For many, this means giving over weekends, evenings, and holidays: all for pay that, in real terms, is steadily decreasing.

Of course, there has been an argument amongst York’s students that lecturers striking is a pointless problem for us. It says that York’s management can’t change the situation for its valued staff, that impacting York students and standing up against our particular vice-Chancellor has no impact specifically on working conditions at our University. This was particularly evident in the most recent email from Professor Jeffery. He said that he was able to “understand” their right to protest, as if the University had nothing to do with the root problems associated with the walk-out.

The fact is that York’s lecturers face a particular plight of pay casualisation: many valuable teaching staff are nonetheless on short contracts of tenure that impact their job security and mental health; certainly not the kind of environment the University should be promoting as an ethical employer.

For York’s lecturers and research staff, that actually gets worse after they leave their job. According to modelling by First Actuarial, the method by which staff are paid their pensions, the Universities Superannuation Scheme(USS) will leave lecturers a net £240,000 worse off compared to the pension scheme in place before 2011. Almost nothing about this figure has changed since strikes on the same issue last year.

It’s admirable that beyond the strikes, many lecturers are making commitments to continue to support students, by marking work and maintaining some contact hours. University of York students need to recognise that lecturers are doing their best to support them, and that the cost of maintaining the status quo could mean far more to students in the long-term than a week’s lost contact hours.

NO- Flavio Sansa

Even if one supports the principle behind the strikes, it’s difficult to imagine anyone sensible within the university community approving of them if they understood that strike action seriously harms students. The bottom line behind why I am opposed to the strikes, and why I think readers of Nouse should be too, is that it is setting the precedent for the normalisation of using students as collateral for activity which they have no responsibility towards or involvement in.

A university community where issues are settled by harsh strike action affecting students is not one where students prosper, and it definitely isn’t one where students’ needs appear valued and respected.

The normalisation of the punishment of students through strikes is damaging the image of UK higher education, which is really in no one’s long-term interest.

The University and College Union(UCU) has shown on other occasions that it has the power to disrupt the lives of students as much as it can, as was the case when it urged external examiners to resign at striking universities in 2018, external examiners which were not even affected by the Universities Superannuation Scheme. What makes those supporting the strikes trust that they won't pointlessly gamble with our hard-earned qualifications again in the future if such industrial action goes completely unchallenged?

If the UCU is serious about standing up for the interests of its members, and doesn’t intend to harm the same student body from which future UCU members will inevitably come, it should include students in its decision-making processes. Unfortunately, I see no evidence of the UCU thinking about students or caring about them in their current literature around the strikes, which is why as a cohort we should be in staunch opposition to all activity initiated by them. They are acting directly against our interests.

If as students we give them an inch, such as through showing sympathy, they will take a mile all at our expense and with no positive outcomes for us. I find it hard to imagine how one could reconcile supporting damaging industrial action while also caring about themselves, which everyone is allowed to do.

The UCU should ultimately be looking at the bigger picture, as many issues are damaging the broader university community, and it can be argued that issues identified by the UCU are symptomatic of the problems associated with how this country’s education system is structured. An obtuse student loan mechanism and exploitative rent practices come to mind.

One might cynically point to how the university itself may compensate us, as they did last time such action took place with “free graduation gowns:” such a suggestion that this somehow made up for the UCU’s punitive action against students is absolutely, patently ridiculous.

I’ll pay for my own graduation gown and expect to be able to wear it when I graduate, just like I put myself in debt for an education which I expect to be delivered in any civilised country. No matter what issues the UCU think they are tackling, or how justified one may feel they are in an ideal world, strike action does not ever happen in a vacuum and the collateral damage dealt to students is an unfair collective punishment for an issue we have no involvement in, and in my view is not only wholly unjustified, it is borderline criminal.

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