Navigating university strikes: A comprehensive guide for Edinburgh freshers

Marking boycotts, strikes, picket lines and more…

If the past four years are anything to go by, your university experience will feature some form of strike action, regardless of whether you support it.

University and College Union (UCU) members are currently boycotting the marking of assessments at Edinburgh University and have initiated several strike action instances in the past year.

For most first years, this will be the first time you will have experienced strikes, picket lines and all that jazz, so here’s a rundown of what you need to know.

What is strike action?

Strike action, often called a “strike”, is a collective decision by a group (usually a union) to cease work. This is done to express discontent, seek certain concessions, or protest specific conditions.

It’s worth noting that while the context of Edinburgh University may have its unique nuances and specific issues, many of these themes are consistent across universities in the UK.

Who are the UCU?

The University and Colleges Union (UCU) represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers, researchers, postgraduates and professional staff in UK universities, adult education and colleges up and down the country.

The UCU plays an instrumental role in negotiating salaries and working conditions for its members. Over the years, the UCU has been involved in various strikes and industrial actions in response to issues concerning pension changes, pay, and working conditions.

Why are my lecturers and tutors striking in the first place?

The UCU strike for various reasons; however, in recent years, strikes have been over the four fights dispute – Pay, Workload, Casualisation, and Equality. 

The union are trying to ensure that staff and union members are fairly paid, have fair workloads, have equal pay for staff regardless of their race or gender, and put an end to zero-hour and unstable contracts that harm job security.

What action do strikers usually take?

For the past couple of years, most action has taken the form of lecture and tutorial strikes and marking boycotts.

With strikes, all that means is that striking staff may not be holding their lectures or tutorials. Some lectures, tutorials, and seminars may be cancelled with short notice, and some striking staff may only inform students whether they are participating in strike action once strike action begins.

Marking and assessment boycotts are where it gets tricky – this means that your work will not be assessed or graded if your tutor or marker is striking. This has caused much controversy in recent months, leading to thousands of students being unable to graduate or progress as their work and dissertations are yet to be marked.

Will all my lectures and tutorials be cancelled when there’s a strike?

Although action by union members is encouraged, not all staff can strike as it means they won’t be paid for those lessons, forcing some to cross picket lines and continue teaching. Others may disagree with the strikes or are not union members, meaning they continue teaching and holding lessons throughout the strikes.

Some departments and schools are also more inclined to strike than others. For example, most humanities subjects, such as Politics or History, tend to participate in strike action, whereas other departments, such as Nursing, may be less inclined.

What is a picket line?

Traditionally, a picket line is a physical line of strikers who stand outside their place of work trying to stop people from entering the building and “crossing the picket line”. Whilst this can still be seen in the case of some departments, nowadays, picket lines have become a lot more complex.

In the case of university strike action, to cross a picket line is to enter a university building. Whilst it is discouraged that students cross picket lines, lecturers don’t tend to keep a black book of all those that do so.

Digital picket lines are also common, where lecturers do not respond to emails on strike days, post about their work or institution on social media, or use university online resources. For students, the only thing to take away from this is to avoid email-striking staff on days when you know action is taking place.

What can I do?

As a student, staying informed on when strike action occurs by regularly checking university updates via the university or the Tab is essential. 

Note strike action dates and arrange your study around the strikes. This could mean the difference between being able to plan to mitigate the effects of cancelled lectures and showing up for a cancelled class on the day.

Engage in discussions about strike action with your peers, tutors and university staff to understand different perspectives and experiences with strike action and why it continues to happen.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

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• ‘There’s been nothing’: Impact of marking boycott on Edi students’ upcoming years abroad