The strikes by university workers in the UCU union over their “four fights” go into their third week on 2-5 March, and their fourth on 9-13 March.
The “four fights” are pay, equality, workload, and decasualisation. While vice-chancellors and celebrity professors enjoy high pay, junior university workers often have casual and insecure conditions, and low pay.
The Cambridge branch of the UCU, for example, points out that the university vice-chancellor is on £492,000 a year, while a library assistant is on £20,130, an IT technician on £23,067, and a research assistant on £26,715.
A reader reports from Cambridge: “On Friday 21st, we had a lively march and rally after picketing along with the local Extinction Rebellion (XR) group, who had been running a roadblock and various direct actions all week, and the university’s Zero Carbon group.
“On Monday 24th, we had a rally themed around inequality, which focussed on the disparities in salary between our Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope and those of the university staff. We represented these pay disparities with fake banknotes bearing the Vice-Chancellor’s face.
“The pickets themselves have been strong in places, but worryingly the after-strike rally had lower attendance then in 2018 and at the start of the November/December round of strike action”.
From Bristol: “Twenty-plus students and supporters on a ‘flying picket’ on 21 February. Less staff picketing than the last round of strikes, but still quite a few at many locations across the university.
“Bulletins went very quickly. Bristol Student-Staff Solidarity Group is planning around 12 teach-outs”.
From Sheffield Hallam: “One picket explained that in her department alone, four members of staff who left were not replaced and their classes are taken by postgraduate students or part-time staff. Casualisation of teaching staff is growing”.
From Sheffield university: “Lively and chatty picket, earlier than the publicised time of 8am. A well-organised department with 100% membership. All support staff [members of Unison or Unite rather than UCU] stopped for a chat on the way in and took leaflets and stickers in with them.
“One picket told me how the lowest paid and least secure staff get the lowest awards, especially support staff such as canteen workers and cleaner whose jobs get contracted out.
“The highest pay awards go to those who are already very highly paid, secure and do the least hands-on work, people in figurehead roles who have a team of staff behind them to do the actual work”.
From Newcastle: “Lively picket lines from 9am on 20 February, perhaps up to ten of them across the campus.
“Postgraduate students [who also work for the university part-time] were disappointed that there weren’t more senior lecturers on strike in their departments. But I talked with a senior lecturer, who said they were striking mainly over the terrible contracts and conditions for newer staff and postgrads. Some postgrads have had teaching hours massively cut this term.
“There are teach-outs at a local pub every lunch time”.
Solidarity, not fee refunds
Demands for compensation from universities has taken root during recent UCU struggles, driven by strikebreaking right-wing students, one of which tried to disrupt a trade union branch meeting at my university (Birkbeck University of London).
Increasingly, however, demands for compensation have also been adopted by students on the left trying to support the strikes.
The argument goes that with higher education being a marketised system, we students should act as consumers would, and demand a refund on the lectures missed during the strikes.
It can be an act of solidarity, because it’ll be costly for the university and lead to one in the eye for the managers.
The issue with this logic is that students should not be paying customers, and academic staff should not be commercial service providers. Education and academia should operate for their own intrinsic benefits rather than as some financial transaction.
The “demand compensation” argument comes dangerously close to buying into the logic that first saw public services privatised, that the individual will have greater power and rights with a market system than a state-funded one. The interference of the market in education is not to place universities within the reach of consumer rights law and the “invisible hand”, but to extort learners with ridiculous loans and to extract profit from academic research.
The university workers’ union UCU advises that rather than claim compensation, students should use their Student Union to pressure their university to put money saved in the strike through docked wages, unused utilities, etc., toward student services, programmes and bursaries.
In the context of marketised education, demanding refunds is rather like telling a mugger they’re welcome to your wallet and can beat you up, but would they kindly lend you the change for the bus home?
Compensation campaigns do nothing to form solidarity with striking staff and ensure the success of their struggle. They could lend weight to an anti-union argument, empowering managers to point to compensation paid to students as “proof” of an adverse impact of the strikes, and giving the media the ability to claim student anger at losing out.
Already, the BBC is interviewing a student anti-strike campaign consisting of two members and 300 Twitter followers as a representative voice. They won’t be hard pushed to find a right-wing student demanding a refund because they dislike trade unions.
We have an option open that will unambiguously help staff and students in their struggle against marketised education, whilst building solidarity and an effective political movement for the future.
Join your university picket line, support your striking staff and land a blow against university bosses and the government!