Students are the real victims in these strikes

By Sam Betley

After four weeks of disruptive strike action, it is important to remember that the majority of USS pension scheme members remain in work. Yet we still find ourselves impacted by a politically-motivated minority, who are prepared to turn students into collateral damage to protect a pensions model that is almost certainly unsustainable.

The biggest losers from the strike action are students. Given the presence of a vocal minority of student activists on the picket line, one might assume that we all support the ongoing withdrawal of labour. But this assumption ignores the silent majority who have either ignored the strike or actively opposed it. For every student hoping for a bumped-up grade by joining their lecturers on the picket line, there are dozens more spending the lost contact hours doing research for assignments for which they are receiving no additional guidance.

The exam season will soon be upon us. For many students, the mere prospect of exams is enough to cause anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues. It is therefore unacceptable that the University and College Union (UCU) has given university branches the freedom to set their own strike days, as a means of causing the maximum possible disruption.

When lecturers cross the picket line, they betray students

At this point, it is worth making a brief point about individual responsibility. UCU members enjoy blaming Universities U.K. (UUK) for the strike and its consequences. But those on the picket lines must accept that they still exercise a choice in deciding whether or not to walk-out. Therefore, if students suffer, those on strike are culpable. I would go further. Any lecturers who knowingly disrupt exams are betraying students. We may not have been the intended targets of the strike action. But students have become the real victims.

Some might counter by arguing that by striking, the lecturers are forfeiting their salaries. But the publicity they have gained by painting themselves as righteous moral crusaders means that they must surrender any pretensions of victimhood. Whether protesting the deportation of colleagues or congratulating each other with barely disguised left-wing buzzwords like “solidarity” or “marketisation”, proceedings at the New Inn crossroads have resembled a political rally more than a picket line.

Here is a fact about so-called marketisation that lecturers never like to hear. Higher education is an economic transaction. Those on strike can dress it up in as much intellectual language as they can muster. But it does not change the fact that we all pay at least £9, 000 per year for a service. That service is tuition, and it is not being delivered. In a market system, it is only fair to expect subsequent compensation. Sam Gyimah, the Universities Minister, is therefore right to argue that all expenditure saved from lecturers’ salaries should be redirected towards refunding students.

Why should lecturers be shielded from economic reality?

The strikes have already had an overwhelmingly negative impact on students. Is it worth it? Do the lecturers even have a sound economic basis for their stance? Cushy defined-benefit pension schemes are hardly suitable for the constrained financial times in which we find ourselves. In fact, academia is one of the few professions in which it is still the norm. There is no good reason for academics to be shielded from economic reality.

UUK tried to compromise with UCU following the hostile reaction of their members. Representatives of both organisations reached a compromise agreement last week, which included, crucially, an independent panel to review the deficit valuation methodology that is the root of the disagreement. In addition, the employer contribution to the pension scheme was set to rise from 18% – double the private sector average – to 19.3%, which would allow most members to retain their full defined-benefit pension.

However, this proposal was rejected by lecturers in rowdy, intimidating meetings at universities nationwide. Younger members do not seem to realise the irony that they are effectively striking against themselves: if older staff retain full benefits then there will be nothing left in the pot for those retiring in future decades. The popularity of #NoCapitulation among the intellectual Twitterati shows that lecturers are refusing to budge from their entrenched position. For them, it is now a case of absolute victory or nothing.

The strikes are now about making a political statement

I do have some sympathy with those who voted for strike action. It may be the case that the valuation methodology was faulty, and consequently that the proposed changes are unnecessarily radical. But I suspect not.

Alistair Jarvis, UUK’s Chief Executive, claims that the status quo requires a frankly unaffordable funding increase of £1 billion per annum. When this figure is combined with the huge impact of strike action on student welfare and academic performance, it becomes clear that lecturers are now making a political statement.

If it continues into the exam period, potentially affecting final degree marks and graduation dates, it will lead to hostility between students and staff never witnessed in U.K. Higher Education.

Photograph: Chris Bertram via Flickr and Creative Commons 

4 Responses

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  1. Jon Bryan
    Mar 25, 2018 - 09:53 PM

    I think everyone should be allowed to speak their mind, and to be able to express their opinions, but that does mean that you get some dreadful pieces appearing from time to time. There is much that is wrong with this article, but I think probably the most objectionable part of it I think is here:

    “For every student hoping for a bumped-up grade by joining their lecturers on the picket line”

    This is code for – “The thickos will support the strike cos they are idiots”

    What an outrageous slur.

    • Durham University Labour Club
      Mar 26, 2018 - 12:11 AM

      No, that’s just your interpretation. Please don’t assume meaning, the same way you shouldn’t assume gender.

  2. Jon Bryan
    Mar 26, 2018 - 11:35 PM

    This comment piece by Sam Betley in The Palatinate annoyed a number of people when they read it, including me. I guess “Job Done” could then be the response of the author and those who affiliate themselves with his views. However, as both he and others who support him have said – “You tell us different then by having your say”. That is an offer to good to refuse.

    I think it is important to try and get past some of the more emotive aspects of the article, such as the outrageous slur on both staff and students that those currently studying have been on the picket line “hoping for a bumped-up grade”; the un-referenced description of Defined-Benefit pension scheme as “Cushy”; and the strange notion that academics are “shielded from economic reality”. In essence, those statements are designed to provoke, which is what they did. None of these statements stand up to scrutiny, and nor is any evidence provided for them. But never mind – job of winding people up is done.

    If you ignore those aspects of the article, the real thread running through the comment piece is the student as “victim”, which underpins the whole of Sam Betley’s argument. The student as “vulnerable” and “needy” is a central theme which appears throughout. He develops this when he discusses the stress and anxiety which comes from taking exams and refers to them as “mental health issues”. It is strange to pursue this narrative throughout an article designed to be critical of the right to take strike action when it involves impacting on students.

    Within the UCU, there are always debates about whether strike action should be taken, given its obvious impact on students. Nobody hides from that debate: taking any sort of industrial action in Universities hurts students. That is a reality in the sector that everyone is conscious about, and so it is always pleasing when you hear reports from YouGov polls showing a majority supporting and understanding the action. And when the representative bodies of students such as the NUS, issue statements in support of the strike, it is always heartening to hear. This is sometimes called an expression of “solidarity” – a left-wing buzzword which is often used by two different groups to show their support for each other, such as when the European Council stated “its full solidarity with the British people and the British government” over the Skripal incident.

    So, there will always be harm to student’s education, but the author appears to then argue a number of things (not that coherently) which add up to the following:

    Staff at Universities should not be allowed to take strike action because:

    1. University education is very important;
    2. Striking staff are “betraying students”;
    3. We all “pay at least £9,000 per year for a service”;
    4. The employers “tried to compromise with UCU”;
    5. UCU has “rowdy, intimidating meetings”;

    1 and 2 are value judgements that you may or may not agree with, 3 seems to imply that if you pay for a service the right to strike no longer applies, 4 is true, but the author seems to have forgotten that this only happened after strike action had taken place, and there is no evidence of 5.

    There are then a series of arguments which, in essence, state that the author knows best:

    • “Younger members do not seem to realise”;
    • “I suspect not”, in response to staff concerns that “the valuation methodology was faulty”;

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but for those staff who have struggled with the dilemma of not going to work to carry out their raison d’être – the education of others – and who now face the financial impact and struggle of having taken that action, I think they are bright enough and have been involved enough to make up their own mind. You need to give them that credit. Betley simply does not.

    The author is possibly right about one aspect of his article – the majority of USS pension scheme members went to work during the strike, although I have not seen any evidence for that. Those who went to work will comprise: those not in UCU; those not covered by the action; those in UCU who are covered by the action but who have chosen to work; those USS workplaces where there was no successful ballot for industrial action. As I have already mentioned, there is always a debate about taking industrial action, both inside of and outside of the union. What is very different about this action is the level of support that it has got (unlike previous strikes) and the thousands of new union members that it has attracted. The numbers on picket lines were unprecedented. That is what was new and very different to other disputes, which is worth mentioning in any commentary on the support for the industrial action.

    In other comments online that the author has made to defend the positions he takes in his article, he does appear to move away from the arguments that he originally expressed. “I’ve been clear that the rationale behind the strike itself is sound” is a comment posted online by Sam Betley, which is simply untrue. He argues the opposite in his article. In the online postings he then returns to his theme of the student as hapless and hopeless victim, stating “students are being used as pawns to maintain the current pension scheme”. Where he is right is that the industrial action has an impact on students, but that is so obviously the case I don’t know why he is arguing it, which is why no-one has really addressed it in comments on his article because it is self-evident.

    Students have choices to make about the action that has taken place. You can moan about it and whine about being a victim; you can ignore it and carry on trying to learn; or you can openly support it. The majority seem to have taken the last two choices; Betley and his supporters have played the victim card. He may think that reflects the student body; I have my doubts.

  3. Neal Terry
    Mar 27, 2018 - 09:41 AM

    That’s your conclusion? The lecturers are making a political statement. Glad to see your education has not been wasted.

    If you agree with the rationale for the strike but test it only against your perception of economic realities i.e. “that’s just the way it is” it is not surprising that you perceive a political statement. Action directed at stating ‘the way it is’ is essentially unjust and the capacity to assess that ‘the way it is’ can and should be something different is nothing more or less than a political statement. The greater majority of people taking action are one and the same as they who opposed the governments introduction of fees and the £9,000 that you deem the financial contraction you insist as the basis of your grievance. Whilst the specifics of this action are focused on the unilateral insistence on altering terms and conditions of employment its greater cause in history is to state that education should be more than a financial arrangement.

    But then, as you deem students supporting the strike (in which number I count myself) to be doing so only of a selfish motivation of a grade hike, is nothing short of insulting of Durham students and of their lecturers. It belies a self interested mindset that expects nothing more or less of human beings and incapacity to hope and think that education, indeed society may be ordered on a basis other than it is. Once upon a time this is what we might have expected from the provisions of higher education; that it enabled a society to progress and move forward through research and critical reflection… but apparently not. It is simply a space for handing out certificates in return for a fee, still if that’s the way it is…


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