Universities set for strikes and protests

Will the anger at higher education cuts gather force across the country?

Are we in line for widespread strike action and protests in British universities?

Higher education is one of the first areas to be hit by public spending cuts. According to the University and College Union (UCU), 15,000 jobs could be lost -- the majority of them academic posts -- while institutions may have to close courses and campuses. The Guardian reported yesterday that potential savings include more than 200 job losses at King's College, London, 700 at Leeds University and 340 at Sheffield Hallam, while entire campuses could be closed at Cumbria and Wolverhampton.

Staff at Leeds have voted in favour of strike action against these large-scale job cuts. The ballot had the highest turnout that UCU has ever seen, indicating that emotions are running high. Staff at Sussex University will also vote next week on whether to strike if the threat of compulsory redundancies is not withdrawn.

And how have students reacted to the budgetary crisis facing their universities? It is a mixed picture. At Leeds, the student union lobbied against strike action from staff, having received assurances that cuts would not affect students. But students at Sussex have launched a concerted protest effort, in recognition that "an attack on education workers is an attack on us".

One hundred and six students have occupied the top floor of a conference centre with the aim of disrupting the university's business interests. Meanwhile, the student union is urging students not to participate in the National Student Survey, in the hope that the threat of reduced survey ratings will put pressure on the university management.

There are two main issues at stake here. The first is the immediate concern of job losses and a shortage of university places for prospective students. The second is the deeper ideological concern about the value the state places upon university education -- is it being deliberately pushed towards private funding? And what is the proper role of business interest in education -- do we risk sacrificing the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself, and the study of the arts, in favour of target-driven, financially motivated research?

Industrial action by staff is clearly triggered mainly by the former, although ideological issues may come into play at some level. The student protests at Sussex, though, seem to incorporate both. Students in recent years have been accused of apathy, but their situation has the potential to draw attention to the deeper concerns underpinning the university crisis.

A wave of occupations of university buildings during the Gaza strike last year prompted speculation that we were witnessing a resurgence of student protest. It will be interesting to see whether protests against cuts gather force in the same way.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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