Solidarity: From Bogota to the Bill Bryson

By Annie Deri

Since my return to the UK, most of the time I couldn’t feel further away from Bogotá, Colombia, the city where I was lucky enough to spend my year abroad. However, the UCU strikes have caused me to reflect on the issues the two countries share when it comes to Higher Education.

This time last year I was wrapping a scarf around my head to protect myself from tear gas, as I headed out to join the mass student protests in Bogotá. Over the two-month period of strikes, the marches were mostly peaceful, but clashes did occur, often between riot police and masked agitators.

The movement began in October 2018, as student organisations called for increased government funding for public universities, and culminated in the ‘march of the pencils’ on the 15th November. Many other disaffected groups took part, including indigenous groups, women’s rights organisations, and agricultural workers (campesinos) to express their discontent with President Iván Duque’s first few months in office.

The UCU strikes have caused me to reflect on the issues the two countries share when it comes to HE

Whilst the political situations in Colombia and the UK are very different and, to a large extent, incomparable, there are many parallels when it comes to issues in Higher Education. The demonstrators’ concerns over privatisation, government underfunding of public universities, and a demand for accessible, quality education for all members of society are matters that will resonate with all of us as we head into the strike period. What struck me about the ‘march of the pencils’ was that, in Colombia, the university students and staff stood shoulder to shoulder and marched together.

In Durham, the impact of the UCU strikes can make it seem like the staff and students are not on the same side. But our educational experience directly depends upon those who teach us being respected and treated fairly by their employers. How can we expect quality education if those who are responsible for delivering it are struggling to cope? Issues such as rising workloads, increased casualisation, and temporary contracts are understandably sources of stress for university staff.

In Colombia, the university students and staff stood shoulder to shoulder and marched together

Furthermore, analysis by The Times Higher Education shows that the gender pay gap in UK universities stands at 15.1%, whilst BAME employees are roughly 10% more likely to be employed on an insecure contract. In 2019, we must do better than this.

In a separate but correlated dispute, the Union is challenging the changes to USS pensions. A rise in staff contributions from 8% last year to 9.6% this year has been approved. The UCU estimates these changes will leave lecturers £240,000 worse off in retirement.

The prospect of losing 8 days’ worth of teaching is disappointing and frustrating, but our lecturers are not the ones to blame. The restructuring of the university administration in recent years has shifted from that of a public institution, with a social purpose, to being run more like a private corporation.

There has been a growing divide between the senior management and University staff, which is reflected in the UCU’s report that staff pay has dropped by a minimum of 17% in real- terms since 2009. Meanwhile, the salaries of University Vice- Chancellors and other senior management has climbed. We must begin to ask the uncomfortable question: if senior management are the major beneficiaries under the current system, will they be truly willing to change it?

The prospect of losing 8 days’ worth of teaching is disappointing and frustrating

Whilst the reasons for these strikes are deeply upsetting and stressful for those affected, the action provides an opportunity for a more open dialogue to take place between staff and students. Go and talk to your lecturers on strike, go to the teach-outs organised by your departments, write to our Vice- Chancellor. Show your support for people who deserve decent wages, working conditions and pensions. The future of UK higher education depends on it.

On Monday, I will put on my scarf – this time to keep out the cold Durham wind rather than tear gas. I will head out to the picket line, and start a conversation. I will also think of Colombia, and the many dedicated, talented people who educated me, both inside and outside of university.

Image by Steve Hide via The Bogotá Post

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