Around 70 students and community members gathered in front of the Student’s Association on Saturday, October 29, joining in protest against the cost-of-living crisis and in solidarity with striking workers.
Organised by the Socialist Society, the St Andrews Campaign for Affordable Student Housing (CASH), and the Socialist Worker Student Society, the event hosted speakers including student activists and representatives of local trade unions, alongside the local student band Downstem.
The crowd wielded signs as they filled the space outside the Students’ Association. The signs had slogans such as: “Students and workers unite and fight”.
Dr Muireann O’Dwyer, a lecturer in the School of International Relations, spoke as a representative of the St Andrews branch of the University and College Union (UCU). She highlighted the reasons for the recurring UCU strike actions as well as the similarities between students’ and workers’ struggles.
“Our pay has been going down year on year compared to inflation [...] Some people say we’re about 25 per cent down from where we would be if we would have kept up with inflation. Our pension funds have also been utterly destroyed”.
She commented on the importance yet financial inaccessibility of universities. “Universities should be a place where people can come together, share ideas, [...] And that's not going to be possible if it's just utterly too expensive either to work in a university or [...] attend university.”
Dr O’Dwyer urged demonstrators to join the picket lines in St Andrews in the coming months.
Zak Fawcett gave the same encouragement for students wishing to support the Communication Workers Union (CWU) strikes.
Fawcett, a Royal Mail employee and representative of the CWU, decried the privatisation of the Royal Mail: “It's become all about profit. Money, money, money”.
Tam Kirby, representing both the Fife Trades Union Council and Fife People’s Assembly, echoed similar themes, condemning neoliberal reforms including the privatisation of nationalised industries.
“I remember when British Rail was British f***ing Rail, and it was owned by us”.
“They sold the whole lot to the scabs in the City of London. They’re leeching profits and raping the planet for these profits”, Kirby said.
Barry Will, a St Andrews student and the Director of CASH, also spoke. He lodged criticisms at the Students’ Association, University, landlords, and Conservative Party policies.
Will slammed the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, alleging she “isn't just responsible for the destruction of trade union movements, she is responsible for the destruction of our communities,” in reference to the Right to Buy programme implemented under Housing Act 1980.
Since then, according to Will, over half a million social homes have been transferred to the private market in Scotland, one which is “largely uncontrolled”.
He added, “Private landlords [...] can snap up all those homes in the private market and they can rent them back to us for obscene profits”.
He went on to attack the University and its Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone.
“I am absolutely full of rage with this university,” Will said.
He commented, “Our principal lives on a salary of a quarter of a million pounds, and she lives in a house on the most expensive street in Scotland, all paid for no less by us. And students are literally going homeless”.
The University responded to these claims stating, “University House has been the official residence of all St Andrews Principals bar one since it was acquired by the University in the late 1800s.
“The Principal lives in a small flat on the third floor of the house. The remainder of the property comprises self-contained accommodation for visiting scholars and staff, guest bedrooms, and a drawing room and a dining room for official receptions and fundraising events.”
On the topic of Professor Mapstone’s salary, the University said in a statement to The Saint, “The University’s Remuneration Committee sets the Principal’s salary. The Principal does not attend and plays no part in the Committee’s deliberations on her remuneration. Professor Mapstone’s salary is considerably below the average paid to Vice-Chancellors at other leading UK universities”.
Tooba Ahmed, an MLitt International Relations student, also spoke briefly regarding her struggles finding housing, before the band Downstem was scheduled to play.
Yet staff at the Students’ Association did not let the band connect to the building’s electricity, and the performance could not proceed on the Association grounds. The Saint reached out to the Association for comment but did not hear back.
On the matter the University stated, “The Union and its facilities are entirely managed by the Students’ Association and as such any decisions relating to requests from the Union should be directed to their offices.”
However, the protest organisers found a connection to electricity at a building across Market Street. Downstem serenaded the demonstrators and onlookers with original songs and covers of classics like “Come Together” by the Beatles and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” by Nirvana.
Some have pushed back on various claims made by the demonstrators at the protest.
In past comments to The Saint, the University of St Andrews denied the validity of CASH’s statistics on student homelessness. The University’s statement cited substantial action taken since the summer to obtain new student accommodation spaces in Dundee and offer housing to students who have reached out for help.
Further, Dr Alexander Douglas, senior lecturer in Philosophy at St Andrews and critic of the UCU, remains sceptical of some of the UCU’s claims and the effectiveness of strike action.
“My issue with the Four Fights remains what it always was. A strike is just an expensive street demonstration unless there’s a clear pathway to resolution,” Douglas said.
“UCU rejected [Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s] last proposal (9 May 2022), but, as far as I know, they haven’t made a clear counteroffer. Without this, the universities have some motivation to just ride out the strikes, which benefit them in some ways: they save on staff costs, and students so far seem relatively tolerant of the disruption.”
But Owain Williams, one of the event organisers and the leader of the Socialist Society, spoke with The Saint on the broader goals of the protest.
“As students raised two generations post-Thatcher, [...] we have lost the language of unions, and in place of this we have been deceptively encouraged into pursuing careers to mobilise us as individuals through the class system,” Williams said.
“A society in which millions will be forced to choose between heating their homes and eating enough food to sustain themselves this winter is built on the structural neglect of its own people [...] Enough is enough.
Williams added, “I hope the resurgence of unions this year helps us finally lift the veil on [...] historically proven means for us to attain both labour rights and civil rights — by organising from the ground up, taking direct action, fostering community and refusing to be divided. This is why as students, we stand with striking workers.”
Image: Renzo Olivieri