Students are being taken for fools.
After a year and a half of the biggest disruption to British education since the Second World War, in which standards of education necessarily nosedived, the UCU has decided to further degrade students’ university experiences by fruitlessly striking once more.
Students have just powerlessly endured 10 days of strike action; on Friday we learnt we are to see five more.
I say “powerless”—who are these strikes designed to target? And to what end? The answer to the former is clear: students.
The UCU claims it is striking over pension cuts, pay, and working conditions, and undeniably these issues are all very complicated. There is talk of the Universities Superannuation Scheme; a budget deficit of £16 billion; overwork; underpay; rising costs of living; casualisation; gender, race, and disability pay gaps; rampant depression; fixed-term contracts; zero-hours contracts. Something is rotten at the heart of Higher Education.
Does the UCU honestly expect students, the only group outside of UCU members to be affected by these strikes, to hold the answers to these questions? The answer is no, they do not.
What they instead intend to do, and have been doing for four years now, is use students as pawns in negotiations with universities and their Vice-Presidents.
They do this in the most toxic way possible. Picket lines and vile terms like ‘scab’ are used to intimidate both students and staff whose only concern is pursuing an education. “Elected” student representatives who claim to advance the agenda of regular students (but who instead get off on niche student politics with its endless layers of tiresome bureaucracy) answer the UCU’s call to arms believing their cause to be just and right.
Student groups that deal in “fairness” join the fray, really seeing in their own structures a mirror of union hierarchy, but ostentatiously fighting under the banner of equality, comrade.
The UCU’s goal is to utilise students’ consumer rights and the online platforms of these fringe groups to lobby the University, hoping that outrage will push through the changes they demand. But economic disputes in the service sector will not be settled in this way, and students, most of whom have taken out eye-watering loans, do not deserve to be used in proxy like this.
Those who are glad to be used in this way are a happily vocal minority, who largely forget that many of the reforms the UCU demand mean not only a rise in fees, but further decreases in quality of education too. Meanwhile those whom the strikes claim to wish to bring to the table sit happily at home, finding the strikes profitable and reputational damage limited as strikes are not widely reported in the mainstream media.
The irony is that the vast majority of the UCU’s membership no doubt welcomed the Blairite education policies in 1997—despite warnings that the repercussions for universities would be “dire”—that have led to their overwork and underpay today. From there, the tragic marketisation of Higher Education quickly crept in under the guise of fairness and equality, despite the innate but supposedly dirty truth that academia and education, and not training, have, and always will be, elite pursuits.
Back then the UCU had its “widening participation” flavoured cake, now see them struggle to eat it.
That struggle looks like standards for students slipping, evidenced by greater numbers of unconditional offers, higher proportions of “first class” grades, impersonal and uninspiring teaching, and a proliferation of Mickey Mouse degrees.
On the other side staff, not just at this university but all over the UK, must deal with ballooning numbers of disinterested students for whom the four year course represents nothing more than a widely shared post on LinkedIn and a box ticked on their CV. And that is outwith the aforementioned issues of the “Four Fights”. Thus the UCU don their mittens and pack their placards and head out onto the streets for some illuminatingly named “industrial action”.
In the meantime, it is those students who came to university seeking a world-class education that suffer. I am in my fourth year now; I am about to graduate. My time in St Andrews, for which I will always be grateful, will nevertheless be coloured by waves of disruption.
I can only hope for the sake of future prospective St Andreans that the UCU does the fair and honourable thing and changes its tack in these ongoing disputes.
But scrolling through the Twitter feeds of its members, I don’t think it will.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew