Student occupiers, anti cuts activists and UCU members from across the UK spoke to Workers' Liberty
Bristol students occupation
An occupation of Bristol University Senior Management’s offices has forced the university to concede to most of their demands. A Bristol Uni occupier writes...
The strikes are over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, in which many staff would lose up to 40% of their pension. So far there have been eight strike days at sixty-four universities, escalating over three weeks with another nineteen possible days planned. It is the first nationally co-ordinated strike since the most recent anti-trade-union legislation – the Trade Union Act 2016 - came into effect in March 2017: and the first time ever that UCU has taken escalated strike action. Thousands of staff have joined UCU, and the strength of the strike has already forced Universities UK (UUK) – the national organisation representing Vice-Chancellors – to re-enter negotiations with UCU. Talks are to continue on Monday 11th March.
Across the country students have been supporting staff on the picket lines and beyond; the NUS also supports the strikes. In several places, students have occupied parts of their universities presenting demands to their Vice-Chancellors. Most demand that their university lobby in favour of UCU’s negotiation position, often alongside demands further challenging the marketisation of education.
Whilst some university management have used repressive tactics such as barring access to toilets or opening windows to make buildings cold, occupiers some such places have succeeded in pressuring management to desist from such extreme measures. In Bristol, the management felt compelled to meet with occupiers and concede to demands.
In Bristol, student support had been growing over the first two weeks of strikes, on picket lines, marches, disrupting lectures and beyond. Student activists, encouraged by others nationally in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, began organising for an occupation during the third week of strike action. On Monday, nine students entered the top floor of Bristol University’s Senate House, where the Vice-Chancellor and senior management’s offices are located.
The occupation received much support from Bristol University’s UCU and Unison branches (only nominal, reluctant support was forthcoming from their own Student Union – despite policy mandating the SU to support the strike). It received significant media attention, and boosted the morale of many lecturers, who showed their support alongside students with noise demonstrations outside. Student opinion overall was very supportive, although a minority continued to write prolifically in the student newspaper condemning such “militant” action as “counterproductive”. They were to be proved entirely wrong
The University and Vice-Chancellor conceded to occupiers’ demands to:
• support an independent re-evaluation of models put forward for the pension scheme
• issue reassurances that no pay would be docked for working to contract
• redistribute all withheld strike pay to student welfare services and hardship fund
• distribute strike payroll deductions over several payrolls
• discuss with UCU over how strike deductions effect hourly paid staff
• release a statement implicitly criticising other universities for their maltreatment of occupiers.
They have not yet agreed to a 5:1 pay ratio, or to greater transparency. See here for details.
This occupation demonstrated conclusively to many students and staff that such disruptive direct action can get results and mass support. Nationally - as well as locally in Bristol - students, staff and other activists must continue and escalate this fight to stop these attacks to pensions, and reverse the marketisation of education. There are strikes from Monday-Friday this week, and a national demonstration this Thursday 15th .
Aris Shukuroglou, Reading Marxist Society and University of Reading occupation
University of Reading Marxist Society
The strike has had a big impact on campus, there is much more unity between staff and students. External groups are helping us with food and solidarity. This occupation has given us a connection between other universities in in occupation. Usually Reading students are passive but not now - we, the UoR Marxist Society would like to radicalise students. We believe that students should have a say in what the University decides- not just a few millionaires who are out of touch with reality.
This particular dispute is part of a bigger picture for us here it is part of a bigger picture. These cuts are part of the marketisation of universities. The relationship between students and workers in a marketised university is completely alienating. Through the Government’s marketisation there will be a clear split in resources between universities and a growing class divide in universities, which is also routed in the school system. As socialists we believe the wellbeing of the lecturers is the wellbeing of the students. There is a mutual relationship.
If the UCU leadership had accepted the deal they would have betrayed their members, society and the students who were there every day supporting them. It is great the UCU have rejected the deal. We had 550 signatures calling for a referendum of UCU members on the deal but for many support stops at signing a petition. There is not enough information out - many think this is just about pensions and not the bigger issues. This is partly because the marketisation has been gradual. Students who are against this strike have been part of the marketised system and see themselves as buying a commodity.
A student at Queen Mary University of London occupation
Queen Mary Occupation
The strike has been important, it has exposed a lot of students to a high-level political dispute for the first time. Many students, particularly those in social sciences, are spending a lot of time reading about what "good" societies should look like. Now they are invited to actively participate and shape the world they want to live in.
It is very important to students because most of us are decent human beings, and we do not want to see our tutors suffer the anxieties that go along with predicted poverty in old age. But beyond this, many students might want to join academia themselves, and a terrible pension plan will put them off.
The Octagon Occupiers thought that the new "agreement" was absolutely unacceptable. Staff and students have sacrificed a lot for this strike, and if the UCU had agreed to this they'll be selling out their membership. The average university student is not following the negotiations closely, but they are generally very supportive of staff. Our Annual Students' Meeting passed a motion where 98% voted to support the strike.
A Cambridge UCU member spoke to Solidarity from the Old Schools occupation in Cambridge.
Cambridge Defend Education
We have occupied a section of Old Schools that includes a downstairs meeting room and corridor, a staircase, and the Syndicate Room upstairs. Much of the structure of the occupation will depend on whether management grants open access, for which Cambridge UCU is lobbying. In the interim, we’ve kept up morale by exchanging chants and songs with students and staff rallying outside in solidarity with us. We have also demanded that our Vice-Chancellor have an open meeting with the University’s staff and students.
We’ve had the largest picket lines I’ve ever seen from UCU, along with occupations, sit-ins, and other highly visible direct actions from students who support the workers’ struggle. For the UCU leadership to concede so heavily during such a high water mark shows timidity at best and utter disdain for the rank-and-file at worst.
The occupiers cheered when our UCU branch voted to reject the deal, so the student left evidently understands how bad it is! The broader student body will almost certainly need convincing through political education about the nature of union bureaucracies though.
I think the dispute has awakened a lot of academic staff to their position and collective agency as workers, and helped students understand why solidarity matters.
Jess Patterson, Uni of Manchester UCU
Striking lecturers and supportive students marched to the meeting down Oxford Road, through the centre of the campus with a banner reading 'No capitulation'. During the meeting people were angry. They saw the potential deal as a betrayal of their commitment to the strike. There was a lot of concern about the effect of the reselling clause on low-paid precarious workers. The vote to reject the offer was unanimous
Magnus Gwynne, University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh University Occupation
We are a collection of students that have come together to support and show solidarity for the UCU strikes by occupying George Square lecture theatre. We are preventing scheduled lectures from happening here, and also turning the building into a radical education space with workshops and teach-outs.
The UUK’s pension cut is not just an attack on our hardworking lecturers and their working conditions, but an attack on our learning conditions. It threatens to further the marketisation of education that has been prevalent in our society recently, turning our education into a commodity, and universities into businesses. A win for the UCU is a win for students.
The strike and occupation has galvanised left-wing groups and activists on campus, bringing them together and showing that we still have a strong, radical presence here.