Staff at the University of Leeds have gone on strike this week for the second time in eighteen months, resulting in yet more disruption to students. The unresolved row between Universities UK (UUK) and the Universities and College Union (UCU) over pensions, pay and working conditions continues to take its toll on the student experience, and many of those affected have voiced their disquiet at the proceedings.
However, anger should not be directed at those carrying out industrial action, but rather at the universities themselves, and at the Conservative governments of the last decade, which have set about the rapid marketisation of higher education. It is only through unequivocal support of our striking lecturers that students can overcome these challenges, and voice support for a higher education system which puts people before profit.
An argument often made in opposition to this strike action is that the impact on students is both disproportionate and unfair. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that the industrial action does not impact the university, which keeps tuition fees while saving money on wages, but rather on students, who still pay their fees but are deprived of their contact hours. This argument essentially misses the point of the action – or indeed of any strike action. The withdrawal of labour is supposed to create disruption, and while this is unfortunate for students, it is a price worth paying for the maintenance of strong unions and employee bargaining power.
It is sometimes argued that the decision of lecturers not to give advance warning of their industrial action and to refuse any rescheduling of classes is indicative of an unwillingness to recognise the impact of disruption of students, but this argument once again misses the point. If academic staff spell out the details of their actions to the university, the impact of the strike will be diluted, rendering the whole process entirely pointless. Lecturers will lose out on pay, students will lose out on hours, but university leaders will be able to minimise the disruption caused by the action, thus undermining the bargaining position of the UCU.
There can be no doubt that students do lose out because of the strike, but anger at academic staff is misdirected. It should instead be aimed at university leaders, who continue to create a two-tier education system in which their own interests are protected, but academic staff are driven further towards insecure employment.
If the student experience is to be our top priority, then let us not forget the impact of the insecure, temporary contracts which academic staff are often shackled to. In a 2016 report on the issue, The Guardian found that almost 50% of Leeds staff were employed on these ‘atypical’ contracts, and warned of the demoralising impact of this on academic staff. Such insecurity in the workplace, which sees many staff left afraid to speak out, inevitably affects the standard of teaching. A devalued workforce results in a devalued higher education sector, and it is students who pay the price for this.
The debate over strike action and its impact undoubtedly feeds into a wider point about the incessant marketisation of the UK higher education system. While universities attempt to cut costs by jeopardising pay, pensions and working conditions, they continue to spend millions of pounds on marketing, in an attempt to attract potential students to their institutions.
When questioned, many universities refused to divulge the amount spent on marketing, but the University of Central Lancashire spent £3.4m in 2017-18, a staggering sum of money, almost matched by the University of the West of England. As students pay more, universities spend more, but the increased investment is not seen by staff, who have faced persistent attacks on their pay and pensions.
The burden of responsibility therefore falls upon us to stand up for our striking lecturers, to defend their work rights and pensions, and to demand that our significant expenditure on tuition fees is reinvested into the university, not merely pocketed by overpaid university Vice-Chancellors and squandered on costly vanity projects. The disruption, while irksome, is a price worth paying for securing a viable future for the higher education sector, and we as students should stand in unequivocal solidarity with our striking lecturers.
Image: The Independent