By Poppy Askham and Daniel Hodgson
Several student ambassadors are understood to have joined staff strikes during Durham University’s Post-Offer Visit Days (POVD), amid demonstrations organised by members of the South student protest movement.
Co-leader of the Green Party and Durham alumna Carla Denyer addressed around 80 students and members of the UCU gathered outside the Teaching and Learning Centre on Tuesday.
Vice-President of the University and College Union (UCU), Justine Mercer, Durham Students’ Union officers and representatives from student groups, including Durham Working Class Students Association were also invited to speak during the protests yesterday and this morning.
The joint protests aim to raise awareness about current industrial disputes and the recent controversy at South College amongst prospective students.
Professor Claire O’Malley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global), Durham University, told Palatinate, “We are, and remain, keen to engage with students to understand their views and work together on matters of importance to our community.”
Palatinate understands that several student ambassadors have joined the UCU in order to take part in strike action during Post-Offer Visit Days. The UCU advises employees that they are not required to inform the University in advance of their decision to go on strike. All union members, including new sign-ups, have access to local strike funds to help cover loss of pay incurred by taking industrial action.
Sol Gamsu, the president of Durham’s UCU branch told Palatinate that “students working as ambassadors are willing to join a union shows the growing solidarity between staff and students and the urgent need for democratic change in how our universities are managed”.
Student ambassadors were advised to “be professional in your outlook when asked about the protests and any other issues” as part of their training and were told “your personal opinion may have to be separated from your position as an employee.”
One second-year student currently on strike from their role as an ambassador, explained to Palatinate, “Time and time again, the University has demonstrated complete disregard for the welfare of both its staff and its students.
“As ambassadors, it is essential that we strike in solidarity with both groups protesting and make it clear that this will go on until demands are met.”
Members of the UCU are currently on strike for the third time this academic year in protest against proposed changes to the University Superannuation Scheme and long-term issues within the Higher Education sector, including pay inequality and the prevalence of insecure casual contracts.
Denyer spoke out in support of the strikes, saying “When will the university senior management — not just here but up and down the country — understand that decent pay, decent conditions, reasonable pensions, proper contracts and manageable workloads are not unaffordable? They are an investment in the university’s biggest assets: its people.”
Palatinate understands that the strike action has affected plans for the University’s post-offer visit day. Students volunteers for the Geography department were informed that they would not be required for the event due to strike action.
Students were told by an assistant Professor in the department that “we had to inform central admissions about our staffing shortages and were told that they will run the open days instead. This means that we will no longer need student volunteers during the day.”
One first-year Geography course representative told Palatinate, “I was disappointed because I had already made plans to stay in Durham. I wanted to get involved, get experience and expand my CV.”
The open-day demonstrations are part of a wider campaign of action coordinated by the South College protest group.
The group’s principal organiser, first-year student Niall Hignett explained to Palatinate: “We are protesting, with students from every demographic standing up to a management indifferent to marginalised students and staff.
“Management must listen to the demands of student leaders and UCU, or disruption will continue, which will affect University revenue and reputation. We will protest, rent strike, and undermine the University on the national student survey if they fail to comply with our demands, and refuse to stand up for their community.”
The group has drawn up a list of 24 demands, including management calling for Principal Luckhurst’s resignation, establishing a student hate speech committee and implementing a framework to vet guest speakers. Students distributed leaflets outlining the group’s aims to open day visitors during yesterday’s protest.
Durham UCU’s equalities officer, Siobhan McGrath told Palatinate, “The University must immediately provide information on all non-confidential aspects of the investigation, including but not limited to: which University processes were or were not followed in relation to the event; what knowledge University leaders had about the event beforehand; and what the recommendations of the report are.
“Rather than attempt to sweep the incident under the rug, the University should repair the damage and it should delay no further in doing so.”
In a statement on 10th March, Durham University confirmed they would not be publishing the report into South College Principal Professor Tim Luckhurst’s role in the incident “in line with the policies of the University”, though acknowledging this would “frustrate some”.
O’Malley commented further on the open day protests, saying: “The views of our students are very important to us, and student leaders are involved in decision making right across the University including, ultimately, our governing University Council.
“We warmly welcome the many prospective students and their families visiting Durham this week. We hope they will be inspired by what they see and hear and they will make Durham their choice for the next stage of their education.”
Image: Tim Packer