As the strikes continue for another week and the conversation remains stagnant, crossing the picket line at UCL is a somewhat daunting experience. For choosing to persevere with your already rather pricy studies, you are met with a sea of rhetorical questions, political judgements, and a stream of leaflets calling upon you to act. “Would you like to find out other ways to support your lecturers in their strike?” a fellow student asked me last week, during one of the more polite encounters. My response? An apologetic but firm “no.” According to UCU, these alternative forms of help include remaining off campus, pressuring others to stay at home, signing petitions, and providing cups of tea and biscuits to strikers. More bizarre was the suggestion that students should engage in fundraising activities to contribute towards relief funds set up to compensate for lecturers’ docked pay (fortunately a non-issue at UCL). Biscuits and tea aside—both thoughtful gestures—as part of the first cohort to have been unceremoniously slapped with a £9000 a year price tag on completing my education, I was left feeling moderately uncomfortable at the suggestion that money should be raised by an already financially squeezed generation to support a relatively wealthy group overcome the costs of what is essentially a voluntary struggle.
Now, before I am branded a non-believer, without reserve, I support the lecturers in their right to strike. Striking is a hugely valuable means to challenge unjust decisions, and the unwarranted and undiscussed pension changes, that will hack potentially tens of thousands of pounds a year off the income of academic staff, most certainly fall beneath that heading. Furthermore, I agree with the argument that most academic staff would more than likely be working in far higher paid jobs if not in higher education, and thus that a healthy pension is an important incentive to ensure quality in research and teaching. Rather, my opposition is to the targeting of students, in a manner which, at times, can be both intimidating and guilt inducing, over what is undeniably a case of self-interest. Last week, a friend of mine was pushed to tears whilst on her way to class by one lecturer who demanded to know how on earth she was ‘not interested’ in joining the strike. After depriving her of the chance to share her point of view, he patronisingly notified her that he had been at the picket line since before she was born. At current, failure to support the strike on UCU’s specific terms leaves students open to accusations of being ignorant, right-wing and self-centred; but there is good reason to think carefully before throwing yourself in.
Walk past any picket line, or occupy-inspired camp that has sprung up in recent weeks, and you will notice that the banners are littered with references to the ‘marketisation’ of universities, the tuition fee hike, and just about anything else that will get students suitably riled up to pledge their support. Now, this is truly ingenious example of branding, but students must remember that the current action revolves around a single issue: pensions. If UCU’s concern was, in fact, over the marketisation of universities, I can recall countless lines crossed and opportunities missed for strike action that would have been both more meaningful and more impactful. To put it clearly, the moment that pension changes are halted, or more favourable conditions are promised, lecturers will pack up their signs, dismantle the pickets and head home, leaving behind a residue of disillusioned students championing abandoned causes, now devoid of their usefulness.
It is not that students shouldn’t support their lecturers and tutors, far from it. It is an admirable stand of solidarity. Yet as paying members of universities, we should be free to continue in our studies, irrespective of whether or not our lecturers’ pensions are dwindling. It is a scary world out there: the job market is looking rather bleak and our debts are piling up into an intimidatingly large mound. If we hope to at some point begin chipping away at this healthy sum, attending university, working hard, and putting in the hours are really quite important. For many students, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, resources are already thin on the ground. Now, stripped of our minimal contact hours, use of the library seems a rather expensive commodity to give up. Not everyone can afford to take a day (or fourteen) off, not everyone is able to work blissfully and efficiently at home, and not everyone can afford to completely shift their priorities in the lead up to exams or deadlines.
Simply, the decision to forego our time on campus in favour of advocacy should be a choice, as opposed to a pressure; those on the picket lines should be more honest about their objectives, and campaigning students should be aware of the one dimensional nature of the strike before pushing others to make similar sacrifices.