“What’s twenty times six?” asks Ann Blair, law lecturer and President of University of Leeds University and College Union (UCU).
“One hundred and twenty”.
“Well. That’s how many mince pies I’ve been distributing on the picket lines this morning.”
It’s a good effort: hundreds of lecturers, administrators and various support staff have arranged themselves outside the Parkinson building before marching into town. Their main demand is a rate of pay that keeps up with their cost of living.
Ann Blair: “Nobody wants to inconvenience their students.”
The last time they were on strike was on Halloween, yet evidently they’ve failed to spook their employers’ organisations into any deal. So what’s their message to students with cancelled lectures today?
“It’s short term pain for long term gain” replies Judith Georgas, a part-time receptionist at the Institute of Health Sciences – it’s not the first time I’ll hear that proposition this morning.
“If, effectively, teaching staff are going to have pay cuts year after year, then the quality of [teaching provision] is bound to fall” she argues. Pay has fallen 13% since 2009.
Judith Georgas: “I think the feeling is that if we keep pushing in this direction we’ll get somewhere.”
Yet, a 2012 survey of more than 300,000 final year undergraduates found satisfaction with their courses at its highest level. In eight categories, including teaching, academic support and feedback, scores had either risen or remained the same. Assuming that most of them were on three year courses, the figures suggest the Class of 2012 did not suffer from their lecturers’ falling living standards over the period.
So why should students care about staff pay?
“This is part of a broader struggle” insists Alex Beresford, African Politics lecturer at Leeds University. “It’s not simply about pay and conditions: this is about students’ education and resisting the gradual encroachment of the private sector [into higher education]”.
Beresford argues that education is heading down an “elitist cul-de-sac…back to the Victorian era”. Although he was not speaking on behalf of his union, several participants of the demonstration echoed his concerns about the future.
Alex Beresford: “We’re fighting for students.”
Richard Miles, UCU Branch Secretary for Leeds College of Art angrily informs me about the state of the education sector: “it’s an absolute travesty”.
“We’re really concerned about students’ welfare and we want the best education system [for them], so it’s the last resort today”.
Richard Miles: “The sector is entirely dysfunctional.”
“Their hand’s been forced”, agrees Tom Follett, a final year politics undergraduate and Campaigns Officer for Leeds Labour Students.
Tom Follett: “The university didn’t expect the reaction that they got.”
As a by-product of higher fees, students question what they are getting out of their education, not just in terms of the time they put in, but predominately in terms of their money. A student’s degree is increasingly seen as a transaction between themselves and the state, rather than a tax-funded service that is otherwise free.
“Students are not customers” says Paul Blackledge, professor of Politics and Leeds Met UCU Branch Secretary. “I’m against fees. I think education is a social good and we should pay for it collectively. Simple as that.”
Paul Blackledge: “Reduction in quality: that’s the only consequence of consumerism.”
I present this idea to Alice Smart, Education Officer at Leeds University Union and ask whether this talk about “value for money” is constructive.
“I don’t think it is actually… It makes people think about education as though it’s a consumer good and something that you’re buying.” She continues: “I don’t like that at all. I think we should be talking more about the public value of education and seeing it as a good thing for society.”
Alice Smart: “We do want [the strike] to have a minimal impact on students as possible, however, we’re totally in support of all the students who don’t want to cross the picket line.”
There are a number of trade unions represented by staff from both Higher and Further Educational institutions here today, including UNISON, Britain’s largest. Even the Leeds Division Secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union is here giving a speech and reading his poetry to the crowd, now assembled outside the Leeds Art Gallery.
I stop Paul Drinkwater as he walks away from the platform: “why are you here?”
“To show solidarity with other unions fighting similar battles” he responds.
Some might wonder what a firefighter has to say about tuition fee hikes. Drinkwater is clear: “It’s disgusting. It restricts the working class from social mobility. I think all education should be free.”
It is surprising to see such sympathy for students from someone working outside the education sector. The key to his attitude is that, like Beresford and others, he perceives the political forces behind cuts to fire fighters’ pensions and education staff pay to be the same.
Paul Drinkwater: “[The FBU] national executive has spoken to other union national executives to try and coordinate action.”
With these ideas and demands in mind, I return to Leeds University Union to try them out on a handful of students meandering through the rows of vintage clothing that have appeared in the foyer. I want to see if the sympathy towards students demonstrated by the striking university staff is reciprocated.
“Do you support the strikers today?” I ask Kyle Gray, a first year History and Theology student.
“I support them in the sense they need to get more money and better conditions… But I think that because, recently, we’ve already had a strike, I think it was a bit inconsiderate.”
Kyle Gray: “I don’t think cancelling a few lectures will make a difference.”
I interrupt second year student Ben Cook from his shopping and ask if he understands what the strikers’ demands are.
“Yeah… I’m aware of them, I definitely think it’s an outrage what’s going on but I don’t know as much as perhaps I should.”
Ben Cook: “Even if I had been inconvenienced [by the strike], I wouldn’t have minded.”
Hannah Prigg, a third year Broadcast Journalism student, laid bare the herculean effort the strikers will have to make to achieve her support: “The people who are suffering from the strikes are the people paying £9000 a year in fees… It’s affecting the students and it’s not really any of their fault.”
I spoke to a few with a similar view to her who, unlike the protestors, didn’t perceive the alleged connection between the raised fees and why lecturers were protesting.
“So, because you’re affected by the £9000 fees, you don’t see why your lecturers should be on strike?”
“Yeah, I think that’s right.”
Hannah Prigg: “I don’t support [the strike].”
Assessing the possible outcome of industrial action by staff is hard to call. If students are unaware of the issues, those on strike cannot expect to disrupt their education whilst also hope for their support. However, with universities increasingly courting the notion of “value for money”, their campaign’s success or failure may rest upon students’ reactions to the problems faced by those working in higher education.
Currently, there is a wide disconnect between the ideas expressed by those on strike and the attitudes of students. If campaigners can win students’ sympathy, then they might have a chance at galvanising their support. Beresford summarises the offer:
“They can show solidarity with us, and we will show solidarity with their struggles as well.”