Tues, 3rd March 2020

University Strike Action: Does it Work?

Text by: 

Louise Strange

Photo by: 
WikiMedia Commons

If you’ve taken a walk through St Andrews, or anywhere near a university in the UK, over the past few weeks, you will have noticed multiple picket lines going up around the university buildings. Striking for equal pay, better pension plans, and more sustainable working conditions according Jo Grady in an interview with Radio 4, the action stands to raise awareness about many noble causes which we should all stand for, and ultimately change how lecturers are treated.

There is no question that pay gaps should not exist in this day and age, nor should lecturers have to suffer for the job of educating the next generation in a meaningful way. No human being should have to suffer unduly, or be expected to do work on top of what they are paid for. This is not a point of dispute for most students, as I’ve been able to gauge. The main question from our side is: are the strikes achieving any meaningful change?

Over the past four years, there have been as many calls for strike action, with this current edition lasting 14 days, distributed across four weeks, affecting millions of students across the UK. For many, this is at least in part a welcome event – the break from classes comes as a much-needed period of relaxation within the constant drive of university.

But for an Honours arts student, such as yours truly, strikes can mean a significant loss of contact hours. I stood to lose 10 hours of class when the strikes were announced, adding up to almost a quarter of my education (luckily, one of my lecturers isn’t a member of the UCU, and I only lose four). And the content I lose is lost for good; that bit of my education is swallowed up by the void of the strikes.

I want to support the strikes and the conditions of those who give me an education, but when I’m expected to support the loss of what could potentially be a quarter of a semester, it becomes difficult. If there was proof that any change was genuinely enacted from this, it would be a different story, but in light of the frequency of strikes compared with the actual results, are strikes in reality a reliable vessel for the values UCU members stand for?

If the strikes are unable to alter conditions in four years, then clearly there is a problem with strike action. And perhaps this is the misplacement of any real disruption – rather than affecting the universities or the nation at large, strike action disproportionately affects students, penalizing us for injustices we have nothing to do with.

Of course, this is where we come into play, because this is the point: cause as much disruption as possible, cause enough turmoil, and eventually the students will rise up too and send a deluge of emails. And perhaps the sheer number of angry emails will encourage universities to lobby for change on a national level. Or perhaps the emails all fall on deaf ears, or a deaf government, or one incapable of offering anything more.

This is the problem – strike action creates a need for students to agree, and a feeling of shame for not supporting. How can we, as students, call out strike action as ineffective? If we don’t support the strikes, we are effectively moving against common sense issues, such as the dissolution of the pay gap or a better pension plan for those who hold the next generation in their hands. When I speak about not supporting the strikes, I always feel like a terrible human being who doesn’t support pay equality or fair compensation.

We should be perfectly capable of supporting the issues the strikes support, while recognizing that strikes are an ineffective method of resolving them.