The main topic of conversation in St Andrews at the moment is the impending UCU strike, with many of us being understandably concerned about the effect it could have on our semester. As it is planned to go on for four consecutive weeks, it has the potential to take out a third of teaching for the entire semester for some people, particularly those in honours years with fewer contact hours.
However, as monumental as this may feel, this is by far not the first time that UK higher education has been at the centre of mass strikes.
In May 2016, the UCU held a nation-wide two day strike to coincide with many universities’ exam seasons. The strike took place in protest over minimal pay rises for university staff, a similar motivation to the upcoming strikes. The value of university pay had fallen by 14.5% in real terms between 2009 and 2016, with lecturers and other academic staff becoming victim to inflation. The strike was supported by a mass-resignation of more than 1,000 external examiners over the falling pay, with many of them also complaining about gender inequality in pay in higher education.
It is also not just academic staff who cause mass disruption through striking. In 2015 SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) hit the headlines due to a student protest over plans to drop a 3rd of all courses offered by the university, and the suspension of a union rep. Students occupied a university building for a month during the protests, and caused the cancellation of many of their own lectures.
SOAS again made news last year when students supported university cleaning staff by striking in protest of their sub-par working conditions. The cleaning staff at SOAS were outsourced through an agency, meaning that they had none of the security offered to actual staff employed by the university. In this instance the protests were successful, with the university management committing to employing all university staff directly, giving them better pay and better working conditions.
There is nothing novel therefore, about the forthcoming UCU strikes. In a political climate where the government are unwilling to invest in higher education, I’d fathom a guess that strikes are going to become ever more present in our university experiences. It is not my place to say whether we should be supporting them or not, not least because I don’t personally know how I feel about them. It is, however, invigorating to know that our culture allows us to stand up for what we feel is important, and that the people do have the power to make a change.