A turning point for higher education?

A turning point for higher education?

Susannah Bain examines the motivations and possible implications of the UCU lecturers’ strike.

All strikes are fundamentally wars of attrition. Employees and employers compete to see who can last the longest without the other. The UCU (University and College Union) strike is now entering its final, five-day week. For students caught in the crossfire, the question of whether to join in and support the action is a difficult one.

The UCU called a strike after a disagreement with Universities UK (UUK), an advocacy organisation for universities across the United Kingdom, over changes to their members’ pension scheme. The alterations would apparently make lecturers receive an average of £10,000 less upon retirement. Participants have also referred to the broader changes made to higher education – in particular, its marketization – as cause for protest. While employers and employees have met for talks, their attempts at reconciliation have thus far been unsuccessful.

What is immediately evident with striking members of staff in comparison to those not striking is their relative youth. As well as departmental gaps (at UCL, the Humanities and Arts seem more mobilised than the STEM subjects), there is a stark generational disparity. This certainly seemed to be the case when I visited my local picket (outside the History building). “At UCL 50% of academics are employed on non-permanent contracts,” Ben Mechen, a striking Teaching Fellow in Modern History, told me. These temporary contracts are disproportionately occupied by younger academics – the ones just starting their careers and upon whom the cuts to pensions will fall most heavily. Some more senior members of staff are striking in solidarity, as Ben points out, but this is uncommon. The younger staff members are those who bear the brunt of higher education reforms, just like the current generation of university students.

The response from the student body to the strikes has not been wholly positive. While one group is staging a sit-in outside the Provost’s office, their passion does not seem to extend to the broader student community. Few are missing their uncancelled classes; many of my peers have expressed the view that, while they support the ideas and intentions of the strike, they do not back the action itself. As a finalist, my classmates are or would be missing out on seminars discussing their dissertation and exams – assessments which could make or break their final grade. Ben acknowledges that finalists, at least, might struggle to join in, telling me that, ‘Support in principle still means quite a lot.’

There are other reasons why students are sceptical. UCU material decries the marketisation and privatisation of education and sees the strike as a reaction to these as much as to the pension cuts. People I have spoken to have questioned this. It is arguably questionable to only strike when the educational changes affect the staff directly, rather than during the changes to tuition fees, for example, which have already severely impacted student experience.

Ben acknowledged this doubt, but said the strikes are something coming to a head, rather than an impulsive reaction. “There has been a growing dissatisfaction among both rank-and-file level staff and students for several years now. Students are annoyed at rising fees, rising rents, vice-chancellor pay, and expenses. Staff are concerned about pensions and the spread of insecure, short-term contracts, and target setting by the government in terms of teaching and research.” It is linked to the votes of no confidence recently passed by both UCL staff and its students. The pension cuts should, therefore, be seen a catalyst and opportunity for the expression of long-term dissatisfaction.

Strikers endured snow the week before I visited the picket and it was still very cold. Nonetheless, they remain resilient. While I was interviewing Ben, a fellow striker turned up to hand out flapjacks, while another distributed handwarmers.

A new solution has been put forward in the last 24 hours in an attempt at appeasement. However, most strikers are critical of the deal and its acceptance seems unlikely. There are currently plans for the strike to continue beyond its planned duration if no progress is made, into the final weeks of term and exams. It must be hoped for the sake of all that such a situation is prevented. Whether strike-action will prompt a reconsideration of wider changes that have taken place in higher-education – rather than just the proposed changes to pensions – is open to debate.


Featured image: Dun.Can via Flickr.

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