Why students are coming out in support of their striking lecturers

The protests reflect anger at a higher education model that treats staff as service providers and students as consumers.

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Students, says Harvi Chera, a second year undergraduate at University College London, “are the academics of the future”. Why, he asks, “shouldn’t universities be democratically run by the people who are educating and the people who are learning?”

This question defines the debate prompted by the recent wave of strikes in academia. Lecturers and professional staff at 61 universities across the UK have undertaken the largest industrial action in the University and College Union's history. UCU and Universities UK, which represents vice chancellors, failed to reach an agreement last month over proposed cuts to academics’ pensions (which the union estimates would reduce payouts by up to 40 per cent).

Enduring freezing temperatures and heavy  snowfall, students, lecturers and graduate teaching assistants set up picket lines outside university entrances, often accompanied by percussion instruments, DIY signs and loudspeakers blaring out grime.

The unprecedented levels of solidarity between students and strikers reflect the increasing discontent at what “the university” – as a place of learning, as a place of community – has become.

Striking staff expressed surprise at the engagement of students, who frequently brought food and warm clothing. It could, academics believe, represent a turning point. “It’s about more than just our pensions,” says Alexander Hutton, a research fellow in history at King’s College London. “It’s about the culture of the university too.”

All over Britain, students, activists and workers have occupied university campuses, provosts’ offices and empty spaces, from Sheffield to UCL. In Cambridge, the Rebel Architects Faction installed a red picket fence outside the management’s headquarters at Senate House. All of these protests – from the picket lines to the sit-ins to the 5,000-strong demonstration in London on 28 February – reflect anger at the marketisation of higher education, at a model that treats staff as service providers and students as consumers.

The collective bargaining power generated by the strikes has created new political openings. Activists who occupied 1 Montague Street in central London, which is owned by the British Museum, said in a statement that they were “creating an alternative educational space that is not rooted in exclusionary practices”. Indeed, every university with a substantial picket line has held teach-outs during which staff and guests deliver lectures via megaphone, on subjects ranging from the post-work city to philosophical inquiries (“can you join the same picket line twice?”).

At King’s College London, the student group Justice for Cleaners, which has been campaigning to end the outsourcing of cleaning services, organised a demonstration on the picket lines at the Strand campus that emphasised workers’ shared struggle against exploitation. Joanna de Groot, the president of UCU England, noted in her speech that the pensions dispute was attracting those who rarely join strikes. At the demo, one of the cleaners, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed solidarity with the striking staff to rousing applause and cheers, saying that “cleaners understand the importance of being treated with dignity where you work”.

Conversely, at every university with striking staff, students are circulating a petition demanding compensation for teaching hours missed. The campaign group Students Against Strikes has steadily amassed more support on social media. An increasing backlash from students has led Kent University and others to pressurise staff to reschedule cancelled classes and lectures, or face their pay being docked by up to 100 per cent per day.

Though Universities UK and UCU agreed to restart negotiations on 5 March, the industrial action won’t end until an agreement has been reached. The waves of camaraderie throughout the country demonstrate that UUK may have underestimated the people it supposedly represents. Even though the pensions dispute may be resolved, the wider struggle will endure. 

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war