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9 February 2010

Universities set for strikes and protests

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

By Samira Shackle

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at Sussex University will also vote next week on whether to strike if the threat of compulsory redundancies is not withdrawn.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”.

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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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