Thursday’s Strike Action and the Changing Face of UK Universities by Ruth Littlewood and Alun Thomas

“Sitting in the UoS Student’s Union last Thursday I heard two undergraduate students complaining about the strike action by UNISON. Among the comments were ‘It’s a bit out of line,’ ‘Strikes never change anything,’ and most worryingly ‘Well, I’m paying for my education so why should I have to pay for them to strike?’ I’ve got to be honest, I was shocked. Students used to be at the forefront of unionised action, standing alongside trade unionists and generally at the more radical edge of politics. This followed a long tradition of political and social action by students, such as the 1968 strikes across the globe. Today, it seems, things are changing. I’m not claiming that all UoS students are against the strike, far from it, but these sorts of comments demonstrate a real change in the relationship between students and union relations.”

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“One explanation for this is clearly the commodification of Higher Education in the UK, which is the subject of Stefan Collini’s review of Helen Carasso and Andrew McGettigan’s recent texts on the changing economic situation of universities. Although fairly lengthy, it is a compelling read that details the wider changes being made to the structure of further education by the current government. These include subjecting it to market forces, by making it easier for certain institutions to become universities without safeguarding the quality of the education being provided.”

“Hostility towards strike action is common, but apathy is ubiquitous. Perhaps we should be grateful that ‘what’s the point, it won’t change anything?’ is not a call-to-arms for more radical action, but as a declaration of bovine passivity it is no more endearing. Yet the sense of futility, for someone hoping soon to make a career in academia, comes unavoidably to the fore. This reduction in wages is surely a symptom of a much wider transformation already well underway. In our new profit-making Higher Education industry, values, priorities and employment conditions will be radically different. It is hard to say exactly how they will be different, and to what extent, because a feature of market values most often cited in their favour is precisely their unpredictability, which makes them difficult for anyone to control. Don’t we want a collection of universities free to educate without regulation and direction? For those of us who enjoy the privilege of choosing an occupation rather than finding one, the cardinal fact of recent reforms is not so much that they have misunderstood the definition of an education (which cannot be sold, but must be earned), but that the sector today looks chaotic, directionless, and financially unsustainable. The strike may deflect a wage decrease in the short-term, but the feeling remains: ‘what’s the point, everything’s changing?'”

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One Response to Thursday’s Strike Action and the Changing Face of UK Universities by Ruth Littlewood and Alun Thomas

  1. Here are my thoughts on the recent strike, though I want to keep this relatively succinct so I’m going to limit myself to talking about academic staff.

    1. There is a lack of understanding of what lecturers do and how the higher education system works, despite students being ‘consumers’ of it. I wonder whether students really understand that a bibliography hand-out or a lecture are the final result of hours (if not years) of work and research.
    2. Ditto for the reality of the job market in academia. Is everyone really aware that higher education is the second-most casualised sector of the economy after hospitality or that a third of academics are on short term contracts? It is certainly a privileged place to work in many respects, but not for everyone. And that’s without talking about administrative, cleaning, and support staff, etc.
    3. It confirms that students now see themselves as consumers. We were told it would happen and it has done. This can only increase pressure on university staff to show (how?) value for money, I expect.
    4. In the UK in the 21st century we’re not that used to labour militancy or strikes in general, and I think this can only reduce sympathy for the strike. (Ironically, the only militancy around, it seems, is that against Labour itself [see the furore re Falkirk]).
    5. There is a lack of understanding about what the strike is about. If we had a referendum on one of the issues as stake, such as the gender pay gap, I’m sure most students, if not all, would support equal pay for female and male staff.
    6. The problem of apathy. This goes far beyond the strike. Having grown up with the luxuries of democracy, the NHS, public services, etc, and comforted by and firm believers in the narrative of progress, I think we’ve forgotten that people fought for what we have, and that we may need to fight to keep what we’ve already got.

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