Editor’s Opinion: Why LUU (and you) should support the UCU strikes
It was a position that caused a firestorm on Twitter last week, with an army of users expressing hurt, outrage and even labelling the Student Executive team “scabs” – a derogatory term for a union member who refuses to take part in industrial action. When LUU announced that it would not be supporting the strikes, things got heated to say the least. But can you blame folk for feeling incensed? For a Student’s UNION, it’s not exactly a stance that fosters unification and solidarity.
So, what makes the LUU position so shocking? Let the facts speak for themselves. Across the UK. 68% of research staff are on fixed-term contracts and 41% of teaching staff are on hourly paid contracts. There is a 15.1% gender pay gap nationally – Leeds exceeds this at 18.5% – as well as a 17% and 9% pay gap for race and disability respectively. A recent UCU survey found that over half of university staff displayed probable signs of depression. Salaries have fallen by 20% against inflation since 2009. Pensions are being slashed on average by 35% by the time current staff reach retirement. The smoke is not without fire.
LUU state that “we don’t believe this current strike action is in the best interest of students”. Bizarrely, they seem to have missed a fairly obvious logical connection: better working conditions for staff mean better education for students. Who can seriously expect a savings-stripped, sleep-deprived lecturer living on the breadline and working on a contract as strong and stable as a Teresa May government to deliver a seminar to their best ability?
In terms of student’s interests, the Exec Officers are keen to nobly highlight the plight of certain demographics of the student body. “Those most affected by the strikes will be our marginalised students, specifically our disabled, international and working-class students,” they say. Be that as it may, it shows once again that LUU’s position is plagued by short-sightedness. It is the structural failings of higher education – the shortcoming that UCU actively fight against – that mean that many Russell Group universities are three times as likely to award a student a first-class degree if they are white. It is those same failings that, according to the Office for National Statistics, meant that 41% of disabled students reported that their mental health worsened during the pandemic, a figure that shows a disproportionate impact compared to able-bodied students. Crucially, we must remember that most of the rights enjoyed by marginalised communities today are the results of direct action, not, as demonstrated adeptly by LUU, timid fence-sitting.
What’s more, this use of language is unnerving. The basics of identity politics have been used to render the oppressed nothing more than a political tool to obtain the guise of ‘wokeness’. It is the wolf of neoliberalism dressed up in progressive clothing.
In previous years, LUU have chosen to remain neutral when it comes the industrial action of university staff, being focused on supporting students through strikes rather than taking an active stance. This speaks to the depoliticalisation of the student experience, of course, but that is a whole other opinion article in itself. Nevertheless, where they have truly shot themselves in the foot is by attempting to speak of behalf of a student body that has not properly been spoken to. It is true that the Exec Officers have ran consultations since September, speaking to School Reps, organising focus groups and hosting drop-ins to gauge the opinions of students. But what percentage of Leeds’ 38,000 students could they have realistically consulted? I reckon a slim number of you reading this regularly open your emails from LUU and even for those that do, it isn’t difficult to miss a time and date for a consultation due to academic workload, job commitments, or the general stresses of student life.
LUU are not the only student union not to support the strikes – they can count KCLSU, UCL and QMUL among their bedfellows – but other Unions reached their positions by holding referendums. A clear and fair vote would have been the only fair basis in which to ascertain a student viewpoint.
UCU held a referendum for their members. That is what a trade union does; it is time LUU started behaving like one. Thus, herein lies the problem: what is LUU? Is a just building in which you can spew up VKs, buy meal deals and practice yoga to your heart’s content? Or should it be a politicised organisation that works to enact change across campus to bring long-term benefits to the student experience? Currently, I only see scope for the former.
Understandably, many students will feel frustrated. Any current final year student on a three-year course will have endured strikes in their first year, a pandemic in their second, and now elements of both in their third. Plenty will feel angry that they are being swindled by losing already scant contact time at an already extortionate cost. But remember, that fight is against the marketisation of higher education and is one students and UCU can battle together. The university management will not help you. The role of student leaders is to channel this anger effectively to encourage real change, but LUU have regrettable chosen to play divide and conquer which is a game the university management will always win.