Edinburgh Uni staff have every right to be striking, and students should be backing them
Stop whinging, start supporting
Unsuccessful negotiations between the University and College Union and Universities UK recently culminated in the announcement of strike action over the course of four weeks in a number of UK universities. The reaction of many students to this news has been at best disappointing, and many should do better to acknowledge the events that have led to this point.
The teaching staff at this university pour their heart and soul into their work, many sacrificing 60+ hours a week. Their fight for fair pensions is also a fight for academic quality and appreciation. Stand with @ucuedinburgh! #ucustrike
— Nick Siegrist (@Nick_Siegrist) February 15, 2018
The first thing to note is what exactly striking academics are fighting for. This is not a case of greed, and staff would not have chosen to take such serious action had the stakes not merited it. Staff could potentially lose £10,000 a year after they stop working, or around £200,000 over the course of their retirement. The action certainly does not overemphasise the cause.
These cuts will worst affect the youngest within academia. These professionals will be entering the sector already hampered by large student debts, only to be punished once more by facing the deepest cuts to their pensions. This risks discouraging talented individuals into academia, thus harming students as well as society as a whole.
Secondly, the reasoning behind the pension changes may also be questioned. The changes will see pensions shift from a defined benefit scheme, where staff have a guaranteed income in retirement, to a defined contribution scheme wherein pensions would be subject to changes in the stock market.
This will see staff rather than employers bearing the risk, thus cutting universities pension liabilities, allowing them to finance new builds and campus extensions more easily.
The constant desire to expand and build impressive new structures stems back to the commodification of university education by successive U.K. governments. The ability to take on unlimited numbers of students, each paying £9000+ per year has bred an ultra-competition between universities, with students, parents, and staff all suffering as a result.
A more general point that is worth making is the importance of the right to demonstrate to a functioning democracy. Whilst strikers are often demonised, with strikes presented as motivated by violence and as endangering society, it is important that students acknowledge the causes and motivations of labour action.
Unfortunately many disgruntled students have directed their ire towards those striking, perhaps due to their actions being the most immediately visible, but it can’t be overemphasised enough how reluctant staff are to strike, and how they have been pushed into this by the actions of UUK.
Staff's reluctance is highlighted by Krysten Blackstone, a History tutor at Edinburgh, who told The Tab: "I have thought long and hard about how the strikes will affect my students. I guarantee every other academic in the University has done the same. It is important for students to understand that tutors and lecturers are not participating in this strike lightly."
One form that student’s frustration has taken is that of petitions demanding compensation. The use of petitions as a means of complaint is not new, but seems to have taken off over recent years, even in instances where it is entirely inappropriate and futile. Why students think either of the two parties – a university that has not instigated the strike, and staff fighting against financial punishment – will pay out is beyond me.
Clearly students will lose out because of strike action – that is exactly the point, with Blackstone also commenting: "Of course, this potential disruption is something we are concerned about. Personally, I know I have done all that I can to minimise how it will affect my students, but at the end of the day, the very point of the strike is the disruption. That is how strike action creates change."
Students would be far better off directing their passions towards UUK, demanding their tutors and lecturers are treated fairly and rewarded correctly for their work, with Blackstone suggesting that students would be best placed contacting their Vice Chancellor regarding their concerns.
Whilst it is true that students will lose out, the extent to which this will happen has been blown out of proportion. University learning is a largely independent process, particularly in the case of essays, the non-delaying of which has been a particular point of concern for students. If anything, a strike should actually benefit the essay writing of a stereotypically disorganised student.
In addition to this, the impact on students will be lessened in many instances by the dedication of those striking. Many staff are accommodating out of hours work to support students, and have gone to great lengths to reschedule missed content, once again highlighting that student welfare is central for most staff and that this action is very much a last resort.
Many student reactions to the strike have been disappointingly selfish. These people, if they wish to continue focussing solely on their own self-interest, should bare in mind the fact that a well-treated academic staff can only benefit them.
Many staff are already working hours above and beyond their required commitment, and a blow such as the pensions change risks further demoralisation and an exodus of talented individuals from the sector – particularly at a time when Brexit threatens to encourage staff departures anyway.
So rather than focusing on how 14 days of strike action may negatively impact them, students should shift their focus to the impact this struggle could have on their lecturers and tutors for the rest of their lives. Staff have shown a desire to minimise negative impact by implementing a gradual strike, and the more students show support for the cause, the more likely it is that the strike will not run its full course.
Perhaps the best advice comes from Blackstone herself, who finished her statement by saying: "If they want to help they should make themselves heard and come to the picket line to support us, as we have dedicated our careers to supporting you."