Sitting across from the head of academic services, having her peer at me over a desk that looked like a library had exploded over it, in an office larger than my living room, the irony of her telling me that lecturers would no longer have their own offices and that they would have to transition to a paperless campus (no bookshelves, no printing out notes) was not lost on me. No, what was lost on me was the logic in her next response, which went something along the lines of "that's a staff problem- why do you care?".
That was over a year ago, and in the intervening months I've slowly become aware that those of us absorbed in campus life are living under a system completely at odds with the virtues universities aim to distil. Students and staff should be collaborative scholars, partners working together to shape education and search for truth - instead, senior managers are keen to open up a sharp divide between us, one in which we're demanding 'customers', and lecturers are the front-line 'providers', no longer allies but separated by the shackles the 'free' market imposes upon us. More than this though, universities are meant to be hubs of critique- challenging societal norms and venting the unbounded curiosity of the young and old alike. Instead, we increasingly live, study and work in institutions that are shaped by the few, at the expense of the many, that are intensely hostile of criticism and entrench, rather than ameliorate, inequities in society.
A law lecturer at my former university recently penned a brilliant piece explaining the reasons why he was choosing to strike today. Senior managers will be keen to paint this as the action of greedy workers, but it is anything but. Yes, in his piece the senior lecturer talks of how lecturers across the sector have suffered a 14% pay cut in real terms over the last 6 years, whilst VC's salaries only soar higher. But he also talks about a gender pay gap across the sector of 13%, an ethnic pay gap that sees BME staff on average paid £3080 less a year and about part time staff placed on uncertain and unreliable contracts. He talks about how this is already damaging relationships between students and academics and how we are seeing our seminar sizes swell due to poor staffing levels so they are no longer fit for purpose. This is born of an agenda to marketise the higher education sector, where universities are businesses, students are customers and profit, not education, is the primary motive.
These facts alone should be enough to get students out on the picket lines with their lecturers today- these are people that know a thing or two about how education will flourish, but instead of utilising the experts at their disposal, senior managers increasingly ignore and bypass them. Demoralised and mistreated staff, forced to work under intolerable workloads is morally wrong in itself- but it will also lead to a worse education for students. During my time at university, I've seen the disturbing places such an ethos leads.
I've seen passionate, courageous and intelligent academics that instilled in me a fierce curiosity and desire to change the world throw their hands up in despair and grief at the prospect of being able to influence their own university's decisions. I've seen senior members of staff sneer at the thought of student democracy, publicly criticise and intimidate students that have spoken out and brazenly lie to students about university proposals. I've seen vast salaries, private chefs and personal trainers lavished on senior managers who bring little value to our institutions, whilst student support and courses are cut. Our educational powerhouses have instead become sad parallels of the world they are meant to change and improve.
Top pay has become completely detached from performance and often comes at the expense of vital student support. Take my undergraduate university- Northampton. It was recently revealed that the VC there has enjoyed another significant pay rise, whilst his university has shot down the league table. Or how about the £39,000 pay rise for the VC at Queen's, Belfast, where I'm currently studying my masters degree- this juicy bonus has preceded a cut in student counselling services of £37,000 that has led waiting times to rise from 3 days to six weeks. Both cases are just the tip of the iceberg- at Northampton students and staff have been consistently and deliberately ignored when it comes to plans of a new campus that will reduce the size of the SU, shift the majority of lectures online and stick lecturers in gigantic open plan offices. Queen's is much the same, with sociology and anthropology undergraduate courses being cut without a whiff of student/staff consultation, the university has reneged on agreements with students that our new building will be called a Union (I wonder why they wouldn't want a union on campus?) and refuse, despite overwhelming student support, to divest from planet-destroying fossil fuels.
I'm tired. I'm tired of seeing my fantastic lecturers mistreated and demoralised. I'm tired of seeing my passionate student officers patronised and ignored. I'm tired of seeing my fellow students consistently be denied the support, education and democracy they deserve and be forced ever more into the rat race that is the loveless employability agenda. Above all I'm tired of a handful at the top, far removed from the soul of our universities, who preach poverty whilst revelling in their wealth, forcing us into marketised shells of inequality, instead of leading the way of positive change in society.
There is hope, however. This year at Queen's I've seen what student activism looks like when I occupied a building with fellow students for 5 days demanding fossil fuel divestment. I've seen what staff/student solidarity looks like when taking over the university entrance hall to jointly protest the closure of courses. And today, I see a national union fighting for its members and the future of education, backed by my student officers. I've seen the fear senior managers have of students and staff coming together, united, with one powerful voice. Today, those of us that care about the future of education, care about the ethos that our universities run under and care about justice, need to join our lecturers on the picket line. Today, let's jointly raise our voices and demonstrate where the true power lies on our campuses.