Why the strikes in Lent shouldn’t have to go ahead

The UCU isn’t at fault though – here’s why


Does 10 days of strikes sound like a lot to you?

According to the University of Cambridge’s official term dates, Lent is from 18 January to 18 March. Assuming you have Saturday lectures (which you shouldn’t unless you’re a NatSci – in which case I harbour tremendous sympathy for you), the Lent term at Cambridge has 52 teaching days. If you exclude Saturdays, that becomes 44 days.

Why’d I add up how many days of teaching we have this term?

Well, it’s because I’m trying to put into perspective just how much of an impact 10 days of strikes will have. For the average Cambridge student, you’re losing a fifth of your entire Lent term. Imagine having to cram all your coursework from Michaelmas into six and a half weeks of intense academic study. That may be our reality this term if the strikes go ahead.

It isn’t just time that you run the risk of losing. You’ve paid for 8 weeks of term. Excluding accommodation (which varies tremendously from college to college) a home student studying at Cambridge for their first undergraduate degree pays £19,242 yearly on average.

There are 150 teaching days (including Saturdays) this academic year – yes, I counted – so 10 days of strikes mean losing £1,283 worth of education. International students are affected even more severely. They pay an average of £38,644 yearly without accommodation, so they would lose £2,576 worth of education – more than twice as much.

Quick maths note: I used a simple average for college and course fees. While I could’ve weighted each college fee according to their total student population, I didn’t because it would have minimal impact (college fees are relatively similar). This is also in no way an exact calculation – it is intended to serve as a quick approximation.

Image credits: Camfess via Facebook

Of course, that isn’t to say that the University and College Union (the UCU, which is organising the strikes) is in any way at fault – University staff are underpaid and overworked by the status quo. University staff have been protesting since 2017, and the situation has only worsened since then as a result of the pandemic.

Soaring inflation has meant their real incomes have fallen, pension cuts have only further jeopardized their futures, and their workload – like Cambridge’s student intake – is only growing. Strikes are their method of choice for protecting their members and they have every right to do as they are doing.

Image credits: Camfess via Facebook

My first instinct when I heard that strike dates had been announced was to inwardly groan that so much of my term would be “wasted” – but that’s a very short-sighted outlook to have.

It is unfair and unrealistic to expect that any meaningful method of protest against Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK would not affect students. Indeed, several surveys have found that over 1 million students are set to be affected by these strikes. Fortunately, several surveys have found that the majority of students are in favour of the strikes – as one would hope, for the sake of the UCU.

Yes, a not-insignificant portion of this term may be lost to strikes. Yes, not being able to use your Faculty’s library or the University Library is an inconvenience. And yes, losing critical admin staff for 10 days is going to mean some chaos if anything goes wrong. But, to members of the UCU that intend to strike, the alternative to chaos is evidently even less desirable.

This is inherently a political discussion, and your position on this issue depends entirely on the values you believe in. But, for students, it seems the majority are in favour of the strikes. The National Union of Students found that about 73 per cent of students support the strikes, and a survey of The Tab Cambridge’s Instagram followers revealed similar results (74 per cent).

Image credits: Rosie Smart-Knight

If the strikes do go ahead, the University will allow students to register complaints if they are seeking compensation for missed teaching. Once industrial action has concluded and reasonable mitigation has been put in place (such as rescheduling teaching), students will also be able to raise a complaint with the University if they are unsatisfied with their learning experience.

An email from Graham Virgo, the Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), on the 31st of January also mentioned that students will be informed by their Faculty or Department at the beginning of the Easter term if there are any adjustments made to examination papers as a direct result of industrial action.

Let that not distract you from the crux of the issue – the unresolved disagreement between employers and employees. The University is doing the equivalent of attempting to treat a broken bone with a band-aid, and that’s not going to benefit anyone in the long run. It and the UCU need to have a cuppa and come to an agreement that everyone’s comfortable with – for the sake of supervisors, University staff, and students.

A University spokesperson claims, “the University deeply regrets the impact that industrial action will have on our students’ education – particularly given the challenges that so many have faced during the past two years. The University remains committed to working with its unions, and continues with Cambridge UCU to press for the redesign of the Universities Superannuation Scheme with a view to achieving better outcomes for members and putting the scheme on a more sustainable footing.”

When contacted for comment, UCU Cambridge’s President Michael Abberton maintained that “10 days is a lot when you consider that is ten days’ salary that striking staff will be sacrificing, especially when they have had year-on-year of real-terms salary cuts and we face the highest raise in the cost of living in generations.

Abberton continued, “the last thing we want to do is be forced into this situation which will impact on students, but the fact is that this is the last straw, we have no other choice. Locally, we are extremely grateful for the continuing moral and practical support we have received from the Student Union. They recognise that we are striking for their futures too, especially if they aspire to an academic career.”

He added, “All we are fighting for is fair pay and conditions and for our pensions.”

There is still time for action – the strikes are three weeks away. 

Feature image credits: Camfess via Facebook and author’s own image

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