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University Faces 18 Day Strike Escalation

St Andrews staff will participate in an eighteen-day strike called for by the University and College Union (UCU). The strikes will take place across seven weeks, starting on February 1st and ending on March 22nd. The UCU states that “unprecedented strike action will hit 150 UK universities [...] unless university employers make substantially improved offers in disputes over pay, working conditions and pension cuts.” The planned strike action will be the biggest series of strikes ever to hit UK universities.

The UCU said that employers need to “substantially improve on the pay offer of 4-5% to avoid disruption.” In addition, the UCU is demanding that “employers revoke the cuts and restore benefits.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that “the university sector in the UK has over £40bn sitting in reserves, but instead of using that vast wealth to deliver a cost-of-living pay rise and reverse devastating pension cuts, university vice-chancellors would rather force staff to take strike action and see campuses shut down.”

The Saint asked several students and PhD candidates about their view on the significant strike action that will take place this year, and how it will impact their studies.

Kevin, a third-year student, spoke about how he is expected to lose a quarter of his contact hours this term due to the strikes. Kevin also mentioned that this is not the first time he has lost contact hours due to strikes, and although last term he was lucky to not have any tutors strike, the year prior he similarly lost almost a quarter of face-to-face teaching.

Freddie, the Vice President of the Labour Society argued that “students should stand in solidarity with the striking lecturers.” According to Freddie, the strike action on such an unprecedented scale is justified as the treatment academics have received “puts the future of the educational sector at risk”.

Freddie also mentioned how the “Vice-Chancellors and the Government do not seem to be moved by this strike action” while “students get caught in the crossfire and lose valuable teaching hours”. UCU general secretary Grady’s dissatisfaction with the response from the Vice-Chancellors is shared by students such as Kevin and Freddie. Although, as Freddie put it, “as a student it seems to me that neither the Vice-Chancellors nor the government care about providing an undisrupted education for students who pay thousands of pounds.”

Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, wrote about the strikes in her email to all staff and students on January 16th. Mapstone spoke on behalf of the university administration, “We will continue to do all we can as an institution to ameliorate the effects of cost-of-living pressures for students and staff.” In addition, Mapstone mentioned the local actions the university is taking to “subsidise travel and food, and to provide targeted support for those most in need.” These local measures, mentioned both on the university and student union website, include access to food banks and community fridges.

Mapstone stressed that the university cannot “take local action on the pay and pensions disputes,” as these are “national disputes… which can only be settled by national negotiation and national agreement.” Mapstone also stated that the university will “take all steps possible to limit disruption to students from strikes.”

Both Kevin and Freddie brought up the conditions of lecturers and how they differ to those of the university administration. Kevin said that his “anger at the situation is compounded by the fact that while lecturers are using food banks to survive, university vice chancellors are paying themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds.” For Kevin, what makes university worth attending is “not the university vice-chancellors, but the labour put in and knowledge provided by the lecturers that truly make any university valuable.”

Although Kevin and Freddie recognise the cost of lost contact hours, both have confirmed that they plan on supporting the striking academics on the picket lines as part of an organised effort by the Labour Society.

Barry Will, the director of CASH (Campaign for Affordable Student Housing), stated that their campaign “stands fully in support of striking staff members who are taking serious personal sacrifices in their fight to secure fair pay and working conditions.” Barry referred to the impact of the housing crisis in St Andrews and the cost-of-living crisis as justifications for supporting the striking lecturers. It should be noted that the 4-5% offered to the UCU is third of the current 14% inflation rate.

Kevin summed up his opinion of the strikes with the following call to his fellow students:

“I sympathise with students upset by this set of strikes, but I implore people to turn their frustrations to those truly responsible for the disruption: a university which has the resources to do so but continues to refuse to pay its staff the bare minimum they need to survive.”

William, a second-year history student, says that he is not persuaded to support the striking staff. Although William agrees with Kevin and Freddie that something should be done to improve the conditions of academics “with regards to pensions and fair treatment,” he argues that the strikes do not “hurt anyone but the students.”

William, having lost many precious face-to-face teaching hours during the tail-end of Covid last year, does not believe that much can be done by students to bring about a resolution to the dispute. William also said that although strikes can be useful, the most recent method of striking last term, refusing to teach lectures and participate in tutorials, cannot solve the problem.

Will, a neurobiology PhD candidate, agreed with William’s sentiment: “As facile as it may seem, how can one support something that hasn’t, isn’t, and won’t actually result in a materially improved outcome?” Will went on to criticise the decision to strike by academics, saying that their “actions harm an institution with neither an actual capacity to negotiate directly to the union, nor a weight sufficient to tip the balance in the strikers favour.”

The UCU website advises students to “complain to their university” while striking UCU members can rely on their position being secure. Will pointed out the asymmetry in the effect of the strikes by commenting: “I guess worker solidarity only is a consideration if you’re willing to pay a membership fee.”

Will, having completed both his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees here at St Andrews, is a veteran of strikes, and, unlike Kevin, is not sympathetic to claims related to the cost of living: “The UCU have been striking since the pre-pandemic times and now see fit to jump onto the bandwagon of inflation. I suppose, all things that fail need to remain relevant somehow.”

Although the contrast between the university staff and striking lecturers persuaded Kevin and Freddie to action, Will brings up the disparity within the academic staff: “I find it deliciously curious that there are some strikers out there likely on salaries over £50,000: doesn’t your heart just burn with their plight? To end, whilst probably insufficient, if I were a UCU member, the smartest thing I could do would be to revoke my membership and at least improve my economic situation by saving that £20.00 a month, or, better yet, instrumentalising that money for my political aims.”

Will also mentioned the unique impact of the strikes on students from disadvantaged backgrounds: “Our fates are not just dependent on lecturer’s presence – something many of us from poorer backgrounds have indebted ourselves for a lifetime to pursue – but their capacities.”

Will finalised his thoughts on the strikes with the following: “I find the UCU’s consistent year-on-year attempts to foster revision akin to a crying baby aiming to get the attention of their deaf parents. Running into a wall so many times, whilst amusing and potentially entertaining at the start, just annoys the masoner that has to repair it after you're gone. I for one stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those research and academic staff that don’t strike with UCU.”

Illustration: Marios Diakourtis

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