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I support the strikes – but students deserve more compassion

An open letter to Cambridge: Please act, and act quickly

I'm still working on my normal column (a sea of college events and a bout of illness have delayed my writing a bit this past fortnight) but I wanted to talk about the strikes. In case you're not aware of exactly what's going on, the short version of it is that thousands of lecturers are striking on certain days over the next four weeks because of pension changes that will leave academic staff '£10,000 a year worse off' in retirement.

These changes are proposed to deal with a large deficit in the Universities UK pension scheme, but it is heavily disputed as to whether this reduction in staff pensions is warranted.

From what I can gather, it's a shitshow, and I completely support the strikes: academic staff do a fucking amazing job, they've given so much value to so many people's lives, I don't want them to get shafted. Fuck, I may well want to be an academic, I hold no illusions as to their value.

But as a finalist who is being heavily affected by the strike action, I'm questioning the way students are currently being addressed by the university.

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Picketers at Senate House

One of the difficulties is that the goal of this strike is not to continue for the full four weeks (because they wish for concessions to happen before then), so they can't give us much notice as to what's happening. That's fair enough. But there's a serious psychological toll that comes with being left in limbo like this. I want this toll recognised. I want to see some statement somewhere acknowledging that this is an additional, significant stress on students who already have a lot of stress on them, that the faculties are sorry that our degrees are being disrupted (I don't mean sorry as in 'admitting fault', I mean sorry as in 'I empathise'), but that this serious, prolonged disruption is what is needed to fight for an important cause. I know you have to be political with your statements in a situation like this, but there's political and there's damaging.

I want the factual news that students will be losing contact time (in my case, almost all my contact time) to be followed with advice on what to do with our seminar materials, recommendations to meet as a group
unofficially during seminar times, information as to whether we can contact our supervisors for additional advice or whether that interferes with strike requirements, as much knowledge provided as possible, publicised avenues for advice…I don't want the strikes to stop without gaining a result, but I want support through this process. Every time I open up a matter-of-fact email about my lost contact time I feel a bit more scared. I want some sign that people know we're scared.

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I'm not making this up for a soapbox to stand on while actually secretly being happy about having fewer classes. I'm genuinely worried about the effect this may have on my year, and on others'. Every time I talk to anyone about how much I love it at Cambridge, I am telling the truth, but I am eliding the difficulty and intensity of the work, the exhaustion, the fact that most of my supervisors have seen me crying, the sheer toll this takes on almost everyone I know who cares even a modicum about their degree. It's worth it, and it ultimately makes us better. I genuinely believe that. But the day I believe that people don't want us to talk about the burden is the day living in Cambridge gets a hell of a lot harder.

To clarify: this is directed at the university as a whole, I am not an expert on these strikes and some of my complaints may be resolved as the faculties adjust to what's happening. I have had some brilliant and reassuring advice by several faculty members, and I have also had some less useful, almost flippant treatment by staff (one person's reply to my stress over the possibility of losing half of my seminars for a module was to reference 'revision sessions in Easter'). I understand that faculties are currently under a lot of strain, but it's not that hard to pay some heed to how we're feeling. We're not pawns. Acknowledging that this is hard on us is not the same as taking on blame for the university staff's actions.

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On the strike leaflet placed in my pigeonhole today, there is advice to 'stand with the strikers' by not entering 'university buildings'. I've heard a friend say they're at the picket trying to turn away anyone who enters the faculty. I understand not wanting people to attend lectures or seminars, but am I going to risk hostility by going to take out books for my essays? I'm not making a political statement by wanting to read some poetry, nor am I supporting the university or the vice-chancellor's actions by doing so. It shouldn't be a burden on us to risk anxiety and lower the quality of our work by not entering the libraries.

I want something done about this soon. Endless articles stream through student media about our mental health issues; Bristol has had seven suicides in the past 18 months; our stress and anxiety cannot be swept under the rug in the fear that recognising it will undermine the strikers' aims. Even just a small amount of emotive and empathetic language in a public, circulated email from the university would make a real impact.

We support you, Cambridge. Please support us.