The first phase of the UK University Strike is over. What was most impressive about it was the broad front created by employees and students.
Emily Luise Hart is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Liverpool, an anti prison campaigner for Community Action on Prison Expansion and a UCU activist.
And so last week saw the end of this phase of industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) to save the pensions of University staff and crucially to fight for pay, working conditions, an end to casualisation and for equality.
This eight-day strike has been incredible. It’s been physically, emotionally and mentally tough- stood out in the rain and freezing conditions in the dark at 6am on a picket line, trying to eloquently put our points across to staff going into work and at the same time losing all sense of feeling in our hands and feet.
There has been no loss of feeling in our students though. Across the UK and throughout the strike, University staff have been supported every day by thousands of students on picket lines and at rallies. Free from attending lectures, students have also supported striking workers in other sectors, attended and bolstered the nationwide 29th November climate protests and staged numerous actions in support of staff.
What they have done and the support they have shown this past eight days despite facing threats from the institutions they pay to study at has been ferocious and brave. In an unprecedented display of ‘strong arm tactics’ University managers have tried to claim that standing on a picket line with staff is unlawful, asked students to snitch on their lecturers and report classes not taking place and in a clear weaponising of the Conservative Party’s Hostile Environment, international students were informed via email that refusing to cross a picket line could risk jeopardising their visa
Universities claim endlessly to have student well-being and the student experience at the heart of what they do but this dispute has revealed the managers and Vice Chancellors (VC) real feelings towards these incredible young people.
One reading of this student communication own goal is that the Universities have a pathological hatred of the relationships students and staff have and the student’s commitment to stand by their lecturers and professional services staff. They also appear to have completely missed that these in the main young people are intelligent, engaged critical thinkers- the thing that universities are supposed to encourage their students to become. However, when these skills are demonstrated by students they are threatened with the law and deportation.
The above is of course all true but behind these tactics by the Universities and attempts to turn students against the staff, is fear. Hatred is so often driven by fear.
VC’s and managers are scared. They are terrified of the power and force of the student body. They are terrified of the relationship between staff and students and the strength of feeling about the managed decline of the Higher Education sector through marketisation and neoliberal policies. They fear that we talk. They should be fearful because students and staff talk ALL THE TIME.
We are the people who live in the real world rather than the 5*, first class chauffer driven one of senior managers and VC’s
who also enjoy inflated salaries
. We talk with our students everyday about the things that affect our lives. It is the staff on strike that are the ones that care when a student is unwell, struggles with caring responsibilities, has no money and is working relentlessly on a zero hours contract to make ends meet, when the anxiety about getting a job after graduation becomes overwhelming, when they don’t quite get the mark they wanted, when they miss a deadline, a lecture, a seminar because it is all just too much pressure when you are paying such enormous sums of money to get your degree. When a student experiences abuse, life trauma, mental ill health, we listen and act and try to do our best to help. Equally my students show concern and care when they know I will lose income and Christmas is coming, when they see me run into class out of breath because I have to get from one end of the campus to the next between classes, when they know I have been up late into the night writing the lecture I will deliver the next day, when my children are ill and I’m worried because I can’t be with them, when I am ill and still keep teaching, when I get frustrated and angry at the state of the world…
This relationship does not disappear when there is a strike. Quite the opposite. It is galvanised, strengthened and nurtured on picket lines and in teach outs. University management has tried it’s best to break this by attempting to pit students and staff against each other, but it has backfired. You can’t break these relationships through bullying and intimidation. Students know what solidarity means and have shown it on every one of the strike days.
Students have braved the freezing and wet weather to stand on picket lines with us across the country. They have joined us on marches and spoken at rallies. They have blockaded buildings, demanded action from the employers, occupied campuses, leafletted events, they have attended teach outs and been a force to be reckoned with on social media. They have brought cake, coffee, hand warmers, words of support, music, high fives and fist pumps, gloves, flags, drums, placards, humour, dancing, love, anger and energy. They have been everything.
Universities have failed to divide us despite their best efforts, in fact as Michael Mair wrote
: “Universities are finding they have achieved precisely the reverse; an increasingly large, well organised and united front has assembled against them. The tectonic plates are shifting”.
As one student stated when asked how they feel about the treatment they have received by the University of Liverpool: “We were deeply disappointed by the university’s position and blatant intimidation tactics, particularly towards international students. Their lack of further response to the email sent out is clearly indicative of the bullying culture emerging from management towards both students and staff. Their behaviour towards us has been completely unacceptable during these strikes, and students won’t be bullied into complying with their neo-liberal agenda”.
Students are not to be underestimated. I have returned to teaching these last few days and have met with a wall of anger and vitriol from my students. Anger not at striking staff but at the employers and university managers. Anger at the way they have been treated and threatened. Anger the working conditions staff have to endure and the precarious nature of so many of their teachers contracts, anger at the way managers are now threatening staff as they return to work. Plus, they are raging at the system and the appalling policies, lies and hatred that is spouted by the Tories in the run up to the UK General Election on 12th December.
The Youthquake is here. It is fierce, vibrant and powerful. Underestimate it at your peril. I am honoured they are on our team.
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