Rather than calling for compensation for lost teaching time, students should stand in full solidarity with university and college staff
This week has seen waves of high-profile strikes at university campuses across the UK, organized by the University and College Union. The catalyst for the strike has been the proposal to change employees’ pensions from a secure, collective plan to one that ties individual schemes to the caprices of the stock market. It is clear that the significance of this strike action goes above and beyond personal retirement funds; it is a stand against the aggressive marketisation of public education.
Although student support for the strikes has been strong and encouraging, there are many student voices calling actively for some kind of financial compensation for the teaching time they will be missing as a result of the strike action. In many ways this is understandable as many students feel that they are the innocent victims of a dispute that has little to do with them. However, we have to take a broader view of our roles within the education sector as part of the political and economic context of our time, and that means fully understanding that the very notion of free and public education is once again under attack. More than that, this demand for compensation risks leading to a position that ultimately supports university management and the wider commodification of education, more than it does solidarity with striking university employees.
Very often, these calls for compensation claim to understand why the strikes are taking place and that they sympathise with the reasons that their lecturers are taking this course of action. This is great to see, but at best it slightly misses the point. At worst, it is complicit in the very ideology of commodification of public education that these strikes are fighting against.
This is not merely a dispute about how much money will be left in the pension pot for a handful of academics, it is one more battle in the fight against the pressures of the neoliberal market on our education system and on a sector of precarious employment. The introduction of market ideology into our university system leads to an insidious commodification of our education, which in turn makes students into customers.
It is clear that this is a progression we should resist, so to talk about education in the terms of some of these student-led petitions (e.g at Edinburgh or York) plays into the hands of those who do not want higher education to be a public good.
To work out how much compensation to demand for 14 days’ strike action by expressing it as a percentage of £9,000 grants legitimacy to the idea that £9,000 is more or less the value of one year’s worth of higher education, even if unintentionally.
One student explicitly compares the situation to having paid a water bill and not receiving water for a period of time. This is a simplistic and dangerous kind of comparison to make because it makes the insane cost attached to studying at university appear more like a regulated tariff than an ideological political choice.
No doubt many of the students signing this petition do feel that they are squeezing all of that financial value out of their courses, but the value of studying at university lies as much in having the space to study and explore that is almost impossible when having to sustain full time employment, as much as it is in the world-class knowledge and teaching offered by many of our academics.
Without wanting to denigrate the skill of the lecturers who are on strike, we could often gain at least nearly as much from reading a chapter on the subject, as by attending a lecture. In fact, it is often possible to find a book on the subject written by the lecturer themselves. For these reasons, it seems a little disingenuous to demand specific financial compensation in this way. As well as this, it is unclear where this money should go once compensated, since in reality these vast sums of money are usually not paid by students to universities, but exist in the form of loans to be repaid by those who end up earning average and above average salaries.
It is worth mentioning as well that these petitions, as with much of the strike coverage, seem to have forgotten that this is not just a strike for lecturers, but for all university staff, including support and administrative staff. This omission suggests that the full scope of the importance of this action has not been taken into consideration.
For all this, we should always reiterate that the price tag attached to going to university is a ludicrous extension of the class divide maintained by private education from a very early age in this country. However, the answer is not for students to play by the rules of that game that treats them as consumers. It is to reject the premise of market-based higher education entirely and in this case to stand in full solidarity with university and college staff against this attack that goes far beyond a debate about missed contact hours.
Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford
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