88% of Durham students polled back UCU strikes

By Daniel Hodgson, and

The Universities and College Union (UCU) have begun their strike action today (Thursday 24th November) across all UK universities. The strikes are expected to last three days, continuing into tomorrow (Friday 25th November) and Wednesday 30th November.

It comes as a poll conducted through Palatinate’s Instagram page found that 88% of the 641 surveyed supported the UCU to some extent, although only 62% said they backed strike action as a dispute tactic. 

Action Short of Strike (ASOS) also began yesterday (Wednesday 23rd November), which entails members only working to their specified contract terms, including refusing to make up for contact hours lost in the strike. The UCU’s Higher Education Committee has also agreed to trigger a marking boycott in the New Year. 

The strike comes after UCU members voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action in a ballot last month. Of the UCU members who voted in the two ballots, 84.9% of members voted to strike in regard to the union’s ongoing pensions dispute, and 81.1% voted for strike action in regard to pay and working conditions. 

The UCU have since called for a pay rise to help staff through the cost-of-living crisis and want to see cuts to staff pension schemes reversed. 

Durham Students’ Union (DSU) is currently planning to hold a ‘preferendum’ to gauge student views on the issue of strikes. Campaigning started on 21st November, with voting expected to open on 28th November. The vote will close on 2nd December with results being released on the same day.

The idea behind the preferendum is to decide DSU’s position on the upcoming strike action. The preferendum will hence give students the opportunity to vote on what they think the DSU’s position will be. 

Students will be asked to vote for one of four positions presented by DSU, which are:

  • I oppose all industrial action 
  • I support working to contract, but oppose strikes and marking and assessment boycotts
  • I support working to contract and strikes, but oppose marking and assessment boycotts
  • I support all industrial action

On their website, DSU said: “The position of the Students’ Union matters because this is how Durham University understands the interests of students, and it will inform how we represent those interested across our work.

“Students have different, well informed, and passionate views on this matter. We encourage everyone to vote for the position that best represents their beliefs, and to share their view and to campaign respectfully.”

Joe McGarry, the SU President, previously had said that “setting a Students’ Union position on this should not be done just by elected reps, but by all students.” 

“Setting a Students’ Union position on this should not be done just by elected reps, but by all students”

Palatinate conducted an Instagram poll with options similar to the preferendum, where students were invited to express their views on the strikes. They were presented with four following options, similar to those being used within the preferendum: 

  • I support the UCU strike action but not a marking boycotts
  • I support the UCU but not their tactics. 
  • I support the UCU and all their tactics. 
  • I do not support the UCU at all.

Out of 641 participants, 180 people aligned themselves with the forthcoming strikes but not marking boycotts, which represents 28% of the sample size. 26% said they backed the UCU but not their tactics, which translates to 168 people. 

With 218 votes, the biggest proportions of poll respondents said they supported the UCU and all the tactics used. This figure equates to more than a third of poll participants (34%). Finally, 12% of those who responded to the poll – 75 people – said they do not support the UCU at all. 

Undergraduate Academic Officer Joshua Freestone said of the results: “This is obviously just one poll and students are not a homogeneous block, however staff-student solidarity is always incredibly inspiring. 

“It’s this feeling of solidarity which led me to take a year out from my degree and run for this position. Furthermore, having stood on an explicitly pro-UCU platform I believe it is the reason I won my election back in March.

“The staff student solidarity is always incredibly inspiring”

“Nobody wants strike action, least of all staff. Staff want to continue to do what they love, teach. However, this is being prevented by a system that refuses to treat them with basic dignity and respect in the workplace. Students and staff deserve far better. 

“When it comes to this dispute it is crucial that we give staff the best possible hand going into negotiation. The longer the picket the shorter the strike, the more support we show for our staff the closer they are to achieving their goals. This is why, come the referendum, I will be supporting the UCU and their tactics.”

A Durham’s UCU spokesperson said: “”We are always humbled by the solidarity and support we receive from students and from Durham SU, our sister union. We are particularly pleased that the highest number of respondents trust their staff to make responsible decisions about what forms of legal industrial action are necessary. 

“UCU’s goals will improve the university and the sector for staff and students (including some who are both), by providing securely employed, fairly paid, diverse staff with reasonable workloads to devote to education, student experience, and world-leading research. 

“Last year, the employer let the dispute get to a threatened marking boycott before negotiating. With strong solidarity from staff and students nationwide, we hope for a faster resolution this year. 

“The longer the picket lines, the shorter the industrial action. We will again stand on the picket lines with students supporting all necessary forms of legal industrial action until the employers make reasonable offers to end the disputes and benefit the whole Durham community.”

“We will again stand on the picket lines with students supporting all necessary forms of legal industrial action”

These days of strike action will be the first to happen this year, though last academic year saw three separate periods of strike action. While a marking boycott was called towards the end of last year, an agreement between the Durham UCU branch and Durham University stopped the boycott taking place in Durham. 

However, unlike last time when local agreements were used to end industrial action, a national deal will be needed this time to end strike action and prevent any potential marking boycotts.

In a statement, Jo Grady, the General Secretary of the UCU, said when the strikes were announced: “Campuses across the UK are about to experience strike action on a scale never seen before. 70,000 staff will walk out and make clear they refuse to accept falling pay, cuts to pensions and insecure employment.

“UCU members do not want to strike but are doing so to save the sector and win dignity at work. This dispute has the mass support of students because they know their learning conditions are our members’ working conditions. If University Vice-Chancellors don’t get serious, our message is simple – this bout of strike action will be just the beginning.”

On its website, Durham University said: “We are aware that issues relating to pay and other issues and pensions are very important to our staff. We have constructive relationships with all of our campus trade unions and will continue to work collaboratively with them in respect of USS, pay and other issues.”

Image: Tim Packer

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