An “Open Letter” to CUSU: Educate students about their options during the strikes
Your feeble open letter is not enough
I would preface this article by stating that I am in full support of lecturers striking. The cuts to their pensions are outrageous, and they have every right to protest and cause as much disruption as possible in order to achieve their ultimate aim. Such is the glory of political activism.
Nonetheless, CUSUs efforts regarding this strike, in particular its effect on students, have been nothing but feeble. As a students union, the interests of the students should be at heart. As much as CUSU activists would shut me down for saying this, it is possible for students to be angry about the strikes, to demand the protection of their interests and have solidarity with their lecturers. It is not an unfathomable concept.
Lecturers are encouraging students to get angry. I am a finalist, and I have had all of my classes and supervisions for the final half of term cancelled, the papers of which will make 60% of my final degree. Our lecturers told us it was not fair. Every single lecturer I have spoken to about this issue is torn up. One has never missed a class since she first started teaching ten years ago, but feels like this attack on his pensions is the final straw. I agree with him. He told us to get angry; write to the Vice Chancellor, take action, protect your interests as students.
Yet the inertia of CUSU surrounding support for students in this strike is just a continuation of the classic CUSU consensus: agree with everything, challenge nothing, stick with what is comfortable. It IS conceivable to support solidarity with the strike but also provide options for students. Your feeble open letter to the Vice Chancellor is not enough.
Universities such as Manchester, for example, have had lecturers encouraging students to rise up, create petitions and demand reimbursement for tuition fees. Yes, that is buying into the marketisation and commodification of higher education, but let’s face it: education has already been commodified, let's at least use this to our advantage. Complaining that we are not getting value for money shows that there are ramifications to the University refusing to negotiate with the UCU; that it is a problem that needs to be solved now rather than after four weeks of striking.
I don’t agree with most of what Education Secretary Damian Hinds says, but yesterday when he proclaimed students had rights to reimbursement, he was right. Students can support lecturers and also demand the education that we are paying for: our tutition fees aren't going towards lecturers, they are going towards increasing the salary of the Vice Chancellor and the assets of the university – it's in our interest to be angry too. If the university isn't responding to the threat of hundreds of lecturers walking out, maybe the threat of thousands of raging students demanding compensation will force them back to the negotiation table.
Other universities' Student Unions have gone as far to provide detailed breakdowns of relevant legal information for students who will suffer. Take a look, for example, at the University of Cardiff Student's Union page, linked here because it's almost certain CUSU will not provide this information and because all students deserve to be informed. It details not only how to help by writing letters, but also how to submit formal complaints, how to see that University authorities (NOT the striking lecturers) are in breach of Consumer Protection Law, and how you could even file for extenuating circumstances if a cancelled class included content relevant for an examination or assessment, which for the vast majority of students, it does.
It is all well and good inviting countless students to protests in solidarity and signing an open letter. But CUSU, as a union for students of this university, need to make sure our interests are being protected. Nobody is communicating information about our rights, and it is CUSU's responsibility to do that.
By encouraging us not to cross picket lines, students are panicked they will not be able to get to the libraries they need to complete the extra reading for the classes they are missing. Yes, students shouldn't cross picket lines, but offer them alternatives, suggestions relevant to the city of Cambridge and how demanding our degrees are, rather than just mindlessly regurgitating information from the NUS.
I am angry and disappointed about these strikes. Not at those striking, my lecturers have my full support. I am angry at CUSU for just constantly toeing the line and for not respecting the needs of their students.
We must support our striking lecturers. But we must not do this at the detriment of our own education. Students, especially finalists, are losing out. CUSU needs to, beyond supporting lecturers, tell us students what our rights are and be representative of all Cambridge students rather than a vocal few.