We spoke to the Leader of the UCU in St. Andrews and other striking lecturers about the strikes.
Go and be nice and buy them a coffee, they’re cold.
Yesterday morning I went down to the picket line outside the department of Medieval History on South Street to speak to Dr. Tom Jones, from the department of English and the head of the UCU in St. Andrews, as well as Professor Simon MacLean from the department of History, who were joined by Dr. Alex Woolf and Professor Frances Andrews, to discuss the strikes, what they mean for students, how long they'll go on for, and exactly how much coffee they've been drinking.
It wasn't a long conversation, but in the short time I spoke with them, I sensed one thing very strongly. They both believed wholeheartedly in the institutions of higher education, they love what they do and that the strikes, were in a way, symbolic of a fight to keep higher education and further learning as far away from becoming commercialised as possible. It was also blatantly clear that our lecturers don't want to disrupt our learning, obviously they don't they've built careers around teaching us, but what they do want is to protect themselves once they retire. It's not too much to ask that we sympathise, we are supportive, because one day it's more than likely we'll be in a similar position.
We all know what the strikes are by now but could you explain very briefly what the strikes are, how they're affecting staff across the university?
So, they're concerning pensions for university staff in grade six or above (that's lecturers, professors and the like), professional staff is probably an easier way of putting it. There have been two proposals put forward, one from employers who want to move from a collective pension scheme, to one which would leave us at the mercy of the stock market, meaning that on the whole professional staff would lose roughly £10,000 from our pensions every year. The other proposal put forward, is the one put forward by the UCU, which would hold onto some guaranteed income in retirement and increase contributions to pensions from employer and employees, which would reduce benefits a bit but hold on that guaranteed money in retirement.
Do you understand why some staff have chosen not to strike with you, or have chosen not to support the strikes?
Absolutely, as a trade unionist I believe collective actions are they best way forward to ensure the most fruitful benefits for everyone, but everyone has access to the material on the pensions dispute, and they make a decision about what they can do, and I would hope that they do choose to come out and support us. This is such a serious threat to our future, that we've not just put on a little strike action, but fourteen days worth of strike action over four weeks, and that's a very serious thing for people to commit to. The university is threatening to dock 100% of pay for staff who don't reschedule their teaching, so we're losing weeks of wages by doing this which I appreciate is a big thing to do.
How many staff are striking university wide?
It tends to vary from school to school, and even people who are not members of the union but are going on strike so it's hard to know exactly, but there's definitely hundreds.
We do know that 90% of a national ballot voted to strike, and there had to be more that 50% support for the strikes to go ahead, so it was pretty unanimous and overwhelmingly mandated by the union
There's been a roughly 65% turnout here, and over 150 people have joined the union since that ballot was done, which is a sign of how strong the feeling is.
How many students have crossed picket lines and joined you?
Unfortunately not so many, although we have had pretty good support from students overall. I gather that the Students Association voted unanimously in support of the strike action, and even though they aren't necessarily joining us, they have been really supportive. I mean, this (pointing at his coffee) came from a student this morning, and they've been going round town bringing us biscuits and chocolate and the like.
There was a protest outside college gate of about fifty students in support of the action yesterday which was nice to see. We are encouraging students to stay out of classes to support the strike, but we understand that some students want to carry on and are mindful of absences and the like.
We do appreciate that this is a huge disruption for everyone and what we're asking them to do is a big thing.
We've organised a series of classes in the Episcopal Church hall and some rooms in the Students Association to offer classes on things we wouldn't normally teach to show students that we still value ideas and that we still want to teach even if we do have to take this disruptive action.
The Tab calculated that students would lose roughly £770 worth of teaching and class time, does it frustrate you when students say things like this even if they are supporting you?
Um, personally no, I think if I put myself back into that position I can certainly see it as a valid point of view, particularly since there's now a financial element for some students, so I do sympathise with their feelings on this.
I think I can sympathise with that, as lots of students have found themselves forced into a position where they are treated like consumers, they're forced to pay a lot under the understanding that paying this money will help them to earn more in the future. It's a shame that increasingly higher education is being marketed as a commodity and it is being branded, and then sold to students. I don't believe that students should be forced into that position, and I believe that higher education is a public good, and a social good and should be publicly funded as far as possible.
Do you have anything to say to comfort students who are concerned about the strikes affecting their academic work at all?
The whole point of the strike in the first place was to make it extensive and drastic to put immediate pressure on the employers to take this whole thing back to the negotiating table. Already, on the second day, more than ten vice-chancellors have said they're in favour of returning to negotiations and even the Universities minister has been quoted saying we should start negotiating again, which shows the strike is working. The point was to do something drastic to cause employers to think again, it was never to cause disruption. We want to bring this thing to a close as swiftly as possible to make sure end of semester exams aren't affected.
Everyone who's participating is a conscientious teacher or professional, and they'll be making sure that any assessments that go out are marked fairly and we'll be thinking about this when it comes to assessment.
And lastly, how much coffee do you reckon you've drunk and will be drinking over the next few weeks?
(he laughs), I don't think we're allowed drips full of it to keep us awake, but it'd be nice.
For more information on the Alternative University of St. Andrews and the St. Andrews UCU visit their Facebook page.
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