Over the next few weeks, industrial action will take place at over 60 universities across the UK in a bid to protect our pensions. The average UCU member will see their pension fall by £10,000 a year under the new pension proposals. In addition, this dispute is part of the wider issue of casualisation and the attack on security of employment in higher education. My statement about my intentions both to strike and take action short of a strike as a teacher and a member of the UCU is available here.
Student reactions to the news about the upcoming strikes has been mixed. Whilst some student unions such as Edinburgh's own EUSA have come out in support, Newcastle 'refuse to support striking lecturers - but they won't condemn them either'. It doesn't take a Sartrean action theorist to tell you that inaction is a form of action - essentially, there can be no fence-sitting; if you're not with us, then you're against us. As Florence Reece first asked in 1931 during the first Harlan County miners' strikes, which side are you on?
However, the new development in the student reaction to industrial action is the call at Edinburgh for students to be compensated for lectures and tutorials cancelled due to the strikes. They have, in fact, set up their own change.org petition, independent of the stance of their own students' union.
We might see calls for compensation and reimbursement as an addition to the disruption of the university which is the intended outcome of industrial action. As we withdraw our labour, students in return want to withdraw their payment for the tuition they won't receive.
However, they appear to be missing the point of strike action - it is a last resort disruption to the status quo running of the institution. We are withdrawing our labour because of untenable working conditions, constituted by threats to our security in work and in retirement. As much as some of the student posts in the change.org petition make claims to solidarity, others call us 'selfish' and ask why we are 'punishing' them. Industrial action is always a last resort, and a difficult decision for many, as discussed in this recent Pubs and Publications article. Many of us really do care about our students, but this industrial action is the only way we have left to make the point to the university.
In addition to this, the call for reimbursement is coded in consumer rights language. This is the result of the neoliberalisation of education - students think their education is a service or product that they pay for, rather than thinking of their education as contributing to their development as caring and critical citizens of the modern world. Back in 2000, Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades wrote that, in the modern neoliberal university, 'students are primarily seen as revenue producers'.¹ Today, these fee-paying students are internalising this attitude and identifying themselves as revenue producers, when their first response to strike action is to ask for their refund.
This is an incredibly neoliberal response to the strike action. The students' first thoughts should be to offer solidarity, not call for a refund. The very future of higher education is at stake, just as the future of mine and my colleagues' livelihoods are at stake.
Finally, their education over the coming weeks isn't truly cancelled anyway: it's merely moved from the classroom to the picket line.
1. Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. "The Neo-Liberal University." New Labor Forum, no. 6 (2000): 73-79.
Please note that the views expressed in this article are privately held and not representative either of the UCU or the University of Edinburgh.