UCU continues to command student support in principle but not in practice

By and Emily Doughty

The UCU has announced a further 18 days of industrial action at universities nationwide, with many Durham University lecturers and tutors joining the strikes. 

These 18 days equate to 44% of remaining teaching hours for Epiphany Term (accurate from the UCU announcement on 24th January).

A poll conducted by Palatinate on 28th January found that 29% of Durham University student participants supported the UCU and all of their tactics. This is an increase of 1% compared to polling conducted in November 2022 by Palatinate.

However, the poll saw an increase from 27% to 32% of students selecting the statement “I support the UCU but not their actions”. There was also a decrease from 34% to 25% of students selecting the statement “I support UCU strike action but not marking boycott”. 

Palatinate also saw a slight increase in the percentage of students who selected the statement “I do not support the UCU at all” from 11% to 14%.

This means that student support for current strike action now stands at 54%. Student opposition to strike action ranks at 46%.

A total of 965 students took part in January’s survey, up 39% from the 692 respondents that participated in November 2022. 

Testimony provided by students to Palatinate was mostly positive towards the strikers and their demands, with one student stating that they would “support strikers all the way until their demands are met. It’s the only way to make change happen”.

Another student wrote: At the end of the day, the best way to make social change is to cause issues and if that means lecturers have to strike and stop lectures then that’s what they have to do. They deserve to be well paid”.

Some testimony places the fault of UCU strikes on the University. One student testified thatThe Uni should sort themselves out and treat their staff better, and compensate students”.

With another placing the responsibility on Durham to provide better conditions – “The Uni needs to provide more support to staff who work in awful conditions”.

UCU Industrial action has caused unrest within the student body in relation to the University, with one student saying “This university is a disgrace” and another continuing to say “It’s disgraceful, students have been impacted enough over the last few years”.

When asked their thoughts on whether they were partly at fault, Durham University did not respond. 

Testimony shows that some students are demanding financial compensation for teaching missed during strike days. One student demanded “A refund if fees should be given for every single strike day” while another wrote that it is “Such a shame the uni won’t be reimbursing us for the teaching we aren’t receiving”.

In a statement to Palatinate Durham University said “Tuition fees cover a whole University experience and are not directly linked to specific contact or teaching hours.  

“Many staff will not participate in strike action. Those who do will be asked to follow the University’s detailed mitigation measures to minimise disruption to students and ensure that we protect their learning experience. 

“The University will be monitoring the impact of the industrial action. There are no plans to offer compensation as we hope that the impact of the industrial action will be mitigated.”  

“At the end of the day, the best way to make social change is to cause issues”

Some students suggest that the strikes are pointless due to apathy on the part of the University, with one testimony asserting “Uni admin doesn’t care about the strikes. The only people affected are the students. Wrong move by UCU”. 

Another suggested that “If lecturers truly had student interests at heart they wouldn’t strike. Never comes to anything”.

Industrial action taken by UCU has been seen to affect all students, with international and postgraduate students likewise testifying on the disruption they face. 

International student testimony again places a focus on reparations and the financial burden of strike action, with one student saying: “As an international student, I am paying too much money to be able to support such strikes”.

And another breaking down this cost further: “I pay £7000 a term (international fees), each lecture costs roughly £110, so I’d love some money back”

There are also continued concerns from finalists over a potential marking boycott detailed by the UCU as a further measure if their demands are not met. 

This has been unpopular with students in the past, and the poll taken on 28th January continues to recognise this with 25% of participants supporting UCU but not their marking boycott.

One student stated “Strikes sure, but if the marking boycott means I won’t be able to graduate, I will not be happy”.

In a statement to Palatinate about the marking boycott, Durham University said “The University has detailed plans in place to mitigate against any potential marking and assessment boycott to minimise the disruption to our students.

“We are particularly mindful of the potential impact on finalists and we will work hard to put measures in place to ensure that students are not disadvantaged. Students can be confident that our top priority will be to protect their learning and ensure they can continue with their education or plans for the future.” 

“It’s disgraceful, students have been impacted enough over the last few years”.

When Durham University was asked if the demands made by the UCU was justifiable they said “The dispute is national, and currently affects 150 universities across the UK.  It centres around pay and USS pensions.   

  • Pay is agreed nationally for the majority of HE institutions by University and College Employers Association (UCEA).   
  • The USS pension fund is one of the largest pension schemes for Higher Education. Universities UK (UUK) represents employers in this scheme. 

“We recognise that the decision to vote in favour of industrial action by some UCU members at Durham was not taken lightly. We continue to work collaboratively with our campus trade unions in respect of USS, pay and other issues where we share areas of common ground. Where we can take action locally, we do. 

“Our wider terms and conditions of employment are very generous, for example our family friendly policies are amongst the most generous in the HE sector.” 

This is the first industrial action arranged by UCU this year, with the 2022-23 academic year already affected last term through walkouts. 

The union are wanting demands to be met in two main veins; pay and working conditions, and pensions. 

On the pay and working conditions dispute, UCU demands, “an increase to all spine points on the national pay scale of at least inflation (RPI) + 2% or 12% whichever is the higher”, nationally-agreed action, using an intersectional approach, “to close the gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps,” as well as for the standard weekly, full-time contract of employment to be “35 hours, with no loss of pay.”

On the pensions dispute, UCU demands “employers to revoke the massive cuts which they imposed on members of the USS pension scheme, and put pressure on USS to restore benefits to 2021 levels as soon as possible.” They also want UUK to put strong pressure on USS to ensure that the “next and all subsequent valuations of the financial health of the scheme to be evidence-based and are moderately prudent.”

The UCU were approached for comment but had not responded.

Image: Daniel Hodgson

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