Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk around campus about the ongoing strikes with a mix of annoyance and support among the student body and a few vocal members taking up one or the other end of the spectrum and furiously communicating their opinions in their outlets of choice. Indeed, for better or worse, this is also what I find myself doing.
It is easy to understand where the annoyance comes from. In the past five years, the strikes have been an ever-present disturbance for students for anywhere between 10 days to over six weeks in early 2018. Even for many of the students that initially supported the strikes in the early years of their studies, industrial action has become one further source of frustration at the suboptimal university experience they have had to endure. The strikes should not go out without criticism, and thankfully they are not. We know that the call for strikes has been met with resistance. Some lecturers have written about the unfairness students are enduring, being forced to sustain a third round of strikes in less than six months, so close to the presumed end of COVID as to suggest that the UCU had been waiting to have a proper strike. I am yet to meet a teacher that hasn’t expressed regret at having to cancel a class and their doubts about the appropriateness of said industrial action or tried to find a way to make up for them. While the disruption of students’ experiences is undoubtedly one of the stronger cards in the UCU’s deck, it isn’t one that they play lightly, but with the knowledge of the damage that they are doing to us. As one of my lecturers put it, “Ideally a strike would just be refusing to do admin work for a month at a time and keep doing classes. That’s what would really hurt!”. Sadly, this would damage their careers as much as, if not more, than it would damage the university.
For many among the vocal few, annoyance has turned into anger, towards COVID, the striking lecturers, the current state of universities, their fellow students who are supportive of striking action, or anyone else that has had the misfortune of landing between them and their interests. A common line of argument is that if the demands of the strike would be fulfilled, such as fewer temporary contracts, an increase in salary to account for inflation, a decrease in workload, a working pension fund, to name a few, it would imply a decrease in the quality of education and an increase in the already high university fees. They take this to be symptomatic of further problems facing academia, most notably a decrease in standards leading to a devaluation of their degrees. When put like that, it’s easy to see how those students standing in support of the strikes are dismissed as, at best, irrational, for they act against their own interests and presumed right to a high-quality education. At worst, they become enemies, for they support a process that is ultimately trying to damage them.
The issue is of course complex. So, let us take the time to tackle the two parts of that argument. First is the premise that meeting the UCU’s demands would imply a worse quality of education. This is not only false, but so much so that it suggests it was never meant to be true. Currently, any graduating PhD student faces an average of 4-5 contracts before landing a semi-permanent position. This implies moving cities, changing colleagues, adapting to a new institution for the remainder of their 20s and well into their 30s, all while managing to maintain a constant research output, attending conferences, forming and maintaining meaningful relationships with friends, family, and partners, and somehow designing comprehensive and interesting modules for their students. Even after doing all of that, they are faced with borderline criminal pension funds and salaries that will for many not come close to matching those of their graduating students. Anyone suggesting that easing these conditions would lead to a decrease in the quality of education is, to me, incapable of understanding how working conditions affect the quality of work. I will go as far as to say that many of the issues facing academia and the growing discontent associated with it are in no small part a consequence of the terrible conditions under which lecturers and researchers are forced to teach and write.
I ought to grant that it would imply a rise in fees which any self-respectable student should oppose till the large issue of financial gatekeeping in universities has been tackled. The focus on research output, citation rates, lack of external funding, a growing social indifference towards universities, the saturation of the job market with overqualified graduates, are all problems that we need to tackle. For as long as we don't those without powerful backgrounds, landing in the rear end of the privilege wave, will suffer the most.
Finally, even if we were to admit that meeting the demands would implicate a decrease in the quality of education, we should still support the strikes. In the face of granting decent living conditions to a dedicated group of workers or keeping slightly better education for ourselves, there is no real debate. A small adjustment of our expectations for what a high-quality education is supposed to look like will always be preferable to keeping lecturers and postgraduate students in their current precarious lifestyle. To argue against that trade is egoistic and uncaring, a disregard for the lives of those that have made it their mission to educate us and see us flourish. Like with any worker, a focus on our rights as consumers (if we can even call us students that) clouds their rights as people, which is nothing less than what the pickets are in search of.
The anger many of us feel is not unfounded, but it is easily misdirected. Instead of targeting those laying next to us, or even those with less power over the situation than ourselves, anger is best directed upwards, towards those who actually hold the tools to create any meaningful change. For as long as we keep blaming the wrong people we will be hurting the same learning communities that we seek to protect. In these days of striking, remember what the picket lines stand for.
Image: Roger Blackwell, Wikimedia Commons