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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.

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

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I’ll miss the youthful thrill of Claire’s Accessories – but the tween Mecca refused to grow up

From an adolescent rite of passage to struggling to stay open: how the tackiest shop on the high street lost its shine.

The first day I was allowed to go into “town” (hailing from rural Essex, that’s the local shopping centre, not London) with a friend – unsupervised by a parent – was a real cornerstone of my childhood.

We were 13, and looking back, we had neither mobile phones nor contingency plans, and my mum must have been sat at home for the entire two hours scared shitless, waiting for when she could pick me up again (by the Odeon carpark, 3pm sharp).

Finally free from the constraints of traipsing around department stores bound by the shackles of an adult, my friend and I had the most grown-up afternoon we could imagine; Starbucks Frappuccinos (size: tall – we weren’t made of money), taking pictures on a pink digital camera in the H&M changing rooms, and finally, making a beeline for tween Mecca: Claire’s Accessories.

As a beauty journalist, I’m pretty sure Saturdays spent running amok among the diamante earrings, bow hairbands and fluffy notebooks had an influence on my career path.

I spent hours poring over every rack of clip-on earrings, getting high on the fumes of strawberry lipbalm and the alcohol used to clean freshly pierced toddlers’ ears.

Their slogan, “Where getting ready is half the fun”, still rings true for me ten years on, as I stand on the edge of dancefloors, bored and waiting until my peers are suitably drunk to call it a night, yet revelling in just how great my painstakingly applied false lashes look.

The slogan on a Claire's receipt. Photo: Flickr

On Monday, Claire’s Accessories US filed for bankruptcy, after they were lumbered with insurmountable debts since being taken over by Apollo Global Management in 2007. Many of the US-based stores are closing. While the future of Claire’s in the UK looks uncertain, it may be the next high street retailer – suffering from the surge of online shopping – to follow in Toys R Us’ footsteps.

As much as I hate to say it, this is unsurprising, considering Claire’s commitment to remain the tackiest retailer on the high street.

With the huge rise of interest in beauty from younger age groups – credit where credit’s due, YouTube – Claire’s has remained steadfast in its core belief in taffeta, rhinestone and glitter.

In my local Superdrug (parallel to the Claire’s Accessories, a few doors down from the McDonald’s where we would sit, sans purchase, maxed out after our Lipsmacker and bath bomb-filled jaunt), there are signs plastered all over the new Makeup Revolution concealer stand: “ENQUIRE WITH STAFF FOR STOCK”. A group of young girls nervously designate one among them to do the enquiring.

Such is the popularity of the three-week-old concealer, made infamous by YouTube videos entitled things like “I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CONCEALER!” and “FULL COVERAGE AND £4!!!”, no stock is on display for fear of shoplifters.

The concealer is cheap, available on the high street, comparable to high-end brands and favoured by popular YouTube “beauty gurus”, giving young girls a portal into “adult life”, with Happy Meal money.

It’s unlikely 13-year-olds even own eye bags large enough to warrant a full coverage concealer, but they’re savvy enough to know that they can now get good quality makeup and accessories, without going any higher than Claire’s price points.

They have naturally outgrown a retailer that refuses to grow with them; it’s simply not sustainable on Claire’s part to sell babyish items to a market who no longer want babyish things.

Adulthood is catching up with this new breed of teenagers faster than ever, and they’ve decided it’s time to put away childish things.

Tweenagers of 2018 won’t miss Claire’s Accessories if it goes. The boarded-up purple signage would leave craters in shopping centre walls soon to be filled with the burgundy sheen of a new Pret.

But I will. Maybe not constantly – it’s not as if Primark has stopped selling jersey dresses, or Topshop their Joni jeans – it’ll be more of a slow burn. I’ll mourn the loss of Claire’s the next time a pang of nostalgia for blue-frosted shadow hits me, or when it’s Halloween eve and I realise I’m bereft of a pair of cat ears. But when the time comes, there’s always Amazon Prime.

Amelia Perrin is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist.