Should university students be compensated for lecturer strikes?
Students at sixty universities are facing up eight days of industrial strike action over the coming weeks, between November 25th and December 4th 2019. Lecturers are striking on a two-pronged approach over pay and working conditions, and changes to pension arrangements. Since 2010, academic staff have faced a wage cut of 21% and over half of academic staff in UK universities are employed on either zero-hour or variable contracts. This had led to arguments that university staff are underpaid and overworked, especially as the gender pay gap can be up to 20% in some institutions and ethnic minority staff are about 10% more likely to be employed on insecure contracts. Moreover, there are plans to increase contributions into academic pensions from staff wage packets, further decreasing the overall pay available to lecturers and reducing the average value of staff pensions by around £10,000 a year.
In order to protest this form of negative treatment, academic staff around the country are taking strike action to cause disruption to education services and timetabling. Naturally, this has caused massive disruption to student contact time, with more than one million students potentially affected, especially as it is a common striking tactic to delay informing faculty and students with a list of striking staff in order to maximise the effect of the action. Based on this loss of contact time, many students are requesting compensation from universities to make up for the loss of education. This argument is not new, as in the face of the month-long striking action across universities last year, many petitions appeared demanding compensation, with most requesting financial recuperation of £1,200 per student affected, such as this one from the University of Leeds.
There is an ongoing debate over whether these requests should be repeated in the face of this year’s strikes. For one University of Leeds student Emilie Clarke, who studies first year BA Liberal Arts, missing six out of her eight contact hours a week has been “frustrating as it works out at around £300 in one week”. Already suffering from a low amount of contact time in a week, Emilie argues for the introduction of compensation for students despite agreeing that the underlying issues prompting the strikes “need to be supported and addressed”, however preferring that this “was not at a detriment to our education”. This sentiment is echoed by the Brexit Party in Wales, with MEP Nathan Gill encouraging universities to compensate their students for any missed lectures, as the party suggest to the BBC that the loss of eight days of contact time would amount to £600 worth of tuition fees. With universities acting as businesses through the requirement of tuition fees for the services provided, many students have begun to question the lack of consumer protections that exist to protect their right to the education which they have paid for. The loss of contact time will impact the quality of education received by affected students, especially those studying in their final years, or on post-graduate degrees, which could therefore impact their success in the job market later in life.
However, it is important to remember that the reasons behind the lecturer strikes do also concern the needs of university students. Many striking lecturers are concerned with the impact that their industrial action is having on students, yet argue that their protests are aiming to improve the educational experience of students under their tutelage. The reduction in academic staff pay has resulted in over-worked, under-paid staff with increased stress levels. This therefore reduces their ability to give students more individualised attention, faster feedback and increased face-to-face contact time. While the strikes may negatively impact students in the short-term, the hope is they will positively affect student results and experience on a more permanent basis by making staff more accessible to students. Despite the overarching potential benefits though that the industrial action could bring with time and pressure, contact time is still being lost and students’ education affected- could compensation be the bridge between supporting the right of staff to strike, and still receiving value for money on your education?
Image Source: Financial Times