Image Credit: Nick Efford
Like all students, I have absolutely loved the return to regular university life this term. Having gone through six weeks of disruptions in first year, followed by four consecutive terms of full online teaching, only now have I finally experienced proper university. The announcement of strike action for week 10 and action short of a strike across next term by the University and College Union (UCU) earlier last month unfortunately confirmed my suspicion that the prospect of having an uninterrupted year at university is to remain a pipedream.
At the end of the day, the same thing that has happened across my two years will happen again. Students will be paying a considerable amount of money for a product, in our case teaching and services that were promised to us when we signed up for university, which are in serious risk of being jeopardised or cancelled altogether. Only in the Higher Education (HE) sector would a supplier expect a consumer to simply roll over when not receiving the product that they are paying for.
Across the UK, university staff are taking industrial action because of changes to the Universities Supernumeration Scheme (USS), which administers one of the UK’s largest private pension schemes for staff working within the HE sector. The UCU is the union that most people who work in the HE sector belong to and they act as the representative body for USS recipients. The UCU is opposed to cuts to pension benefits and also to the relatively high number of staff in the sector that are on low wages and insecure job contracts.
Now, clearly there are legitimate causes for staff striking which I fully understand. However, this is the third year in which students have experienced industrial action, which combined with the enormous impact of Covid-19, has caused students to massively lose out to previous cohorts when it comes to value for money. At the end of the day, when the average student debt burden is close to £45k, it’s easy to understand why students are so fed up. When you think about how important getting final assessments, grades and feedback is to students at the end of term, such action can really have a considerable impact. This is especially true for final year students doing dissertations who may have missed out on key supervision meetings and advice from tutors in the last week of term.
"And the end result of this? Students being used as collateral."
The disputes over pension contributions, pay and conditions are solely between the UCU and the organisation representing Vice-Chancellors and employers, Universities UK. Meaningful change can only be achieved by both sides engaging in discussion, yet at the moment we see both the UCU and UUK digging their heels in. And the end result of this? Students being used as collateral.
We see disruption to learning and tuition that will stretch well into next term, and on the other hand we can be confident of intransigence when it comes to rebates on fees. Yes, there are serious causes for concern with how the HE sector treats the many staff who work hard to support students. However, as a fee paying student consumer, it’s impossible not to feel instinctively partisan on this. Report after report show how a UK university degree is being devalued, and the repetitive cycle of disruptions that affect the delivery of tuition only confirms this. In many ways, therefore, this round of disruption is just the icing on the cake for students. The quality of university education and experience surely has to be near the worst of most cohorts before us.
The fact that the UCU sees industrial action as its only remaining option is obviously a result of longstanding issues in the function of HE, prevalent for the last decade at least. The casualisation of labour and pay disputes forms the core of many legitimate concerns from staff.
However, when the interests of students are being jeopardised once again, I can’t support the strikes. So many of us have put up with disruptions over the course of our degrees, whilst continuing to pay the full price for a product promised to us when we signed up that has not been properly fulfilled. Let’s hope that all sides can finally agree to negotiate in good faith so we can avoid this endless cycle once and for all.