By Rollo Speak
As swiftly as exams arrive, the memory of the UCU strikes fade. Ultimately, for the employees, universities, and students, little has changed.
In April, when an agreement was finally reached, it seemed that UCU (University and College Union) had finally slain UUK (Universities UK), returning to Durham heroically with pensions in-hand. Yet, it didn’t transpire that way. Everything surrounding that final settlement was suspiciously quiet. After staunchly defending academics and emphatically disagreeing with proposed cuts, The Guardian, the last bastion of defence for the university academic, remained eerily silent.
UCU haven’t changed the pension scheme, just postponed a certainty
If we were to tally up the ‘achievements’ thus far, it must be noted that the current pension scheme won’t change until April 2019. However, this is the same position university staff would be in if they had simply accepted the pension changes. So, although the UCU and UUK will continue negotiating over the next year, the Union haven’t stopped UUK from changing the pension scheme; it has simply postponed a certainty.
In fact, it might just be that the UCU have just given up. UCU rejected the first amended pension proposal in mid-March, accompanied by the many ascending to Twitter and vociferously tweeting #NoCapitulation in support. Those universities were really going to get it good for messing around with the pensions.
And yet, the mid-April agreement was effectively identical to the one they emphatically rejected a mere few weeks before. Interestingly, part of the ongoing discussions between UCU and UUK were about gaining state support and funding for the universities pension scheme. If anything says that even the UCU realises that the current pension system is unsustainable, it is that.
Strikes are only effective when they make people’s lives miserable
As such, the outcome seems bleak for academics. When considering why the strikes weren’t as effective as hoped, it is crucial to think about how and why strikes work. To put it bluntly, strikes are most effective when they make people’s lives miserable. Strikes were effective in the 1970s for this reason. Schools and hospitals were closed. Rubbish lay strewn in the streets. 300 dead bodies piled up in Liverpool where, because of strike action, they lay unburied.
A more recent example might be the never-ending London Underground strikes. Why are they effective? Tens of thousands of people have their commutes played with. As such, all those affected become very dissatisfied. Transport for London then have to deal with the ramifications, their call centres dealing with angry people screeching down the telephones, while piles of letters and emails sent by customers threaten law-suits and demand refunds.
To summarise, a successful strike hampers an institution twofold. It has to deal with the stress of the strike action itself as well as livid customers out for blood (perhaps not literally). And so, the theory goes, the institution then bows under the pressure.
Now, let’s compare the university strikes. The service being taken away from students is minimal. Students can just go and open their textbook and read the relevant chapter or look at lecture notes online. It is as if there was a London Underground strike, but there was another equally easy and efficient way to get to work. It is as if a 1970s strike caused a hospital to close, but there was another open hospital right next door. As a service-receiver, who would even care that there was a strike?
It hasn’t affected us very much. Fine, some students have been upset and have moaned to their friends and a very small minority might have even dared to send a gently worded email to the university to explain their frustration. Compare the stress that the university will face to Transport for London, who have received non-stop abuse and death threats over every possible line of communication from commuters. That’s the first problem.
Most students would celebrate no lectures with a pint at the Swan
The second problem concerns the standard student psyche. Students are easy-going. Many (if not the boring ones who study Law) would celebrate the lack of lectures with a lazy morning of Netflix and some pints at the Swan in the afternoon. This may be an exaggeration, but students are not, as a group, bothered. They don’t care enough to consult lawyers and see if they could sue the university. They aren’t bothered enough to make angry phone calls to the administration. I’d know. I’m one of them.
These two reasons compound and create the worst possible environment for strikers hoping to effect meaningful change. The last thing that strikers would want is for the disruption to be met with complete indifference. For students to look up from Instagram just long enough to ask “You’re striking – so what? Who cares?”
Illustration: Katie Butler