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Posters at UCU protest

Posters at UCU protest. Photo: Counterfire

Teach-outs are building staff-student solidarity and provide a model for a better university, writes Clare Burgess

I have been in one university or another for five years now, and have become familiar with the refrain that departments should feel like communities – this comes from on-high, the idea that a sense of belonging and solidarity will make students more engaged and staff more focused.

I have never felt the same sense of community I did last week, sitting in a chilly village hall and talking with staff and other students about the problems facing us. The opportunity to be open with staff, and for them to be open with us, was invaluable and extremely rare.

I was able to understand the work they put in behind the scenes to make my course run smoothly, and the lengths to which they go for their students. One lecturer described holding on to the podium of the lecture theatre in order to stay upright because they were so unwell that they felt unable to stand unassisted, but were committed to delivering the lecture anyway.

This, and many similar stories, really drove home to me the situation in which our staff find themselves: their workload is growing exponentially, much of which we never see, their teaching and research is being boiled down to statistics and figures which can never communicate the truth of such complex realities, and their jobs and futures are increasingly precarious due to casualisation, unfair hiring practices and threats to their pensions.

This is not a phenomenon limited to teaching staff: the plight of professional staff is in some ways worse, as their contribution is so invisible to most students, and yet they face similar challenges with even less thanks. 

I was lucky to be able to attend a Teach-Out, run by staff from my department, that discussed issues such as casualisation, the internationalisation, and marketisation of our universities, the commodification of education, and the shared struggle of staff and students. Over the course of the day, I began to see a bigger picture: the challenges faced by staff are very similar to those of students – deteriorating mental health due to increased workloads and pressures, precarity and financial difficulties.

In this context, the attempts by certain senior management to pit students against staff seem even more sinister: in notable cases, this has included encouraging students to cross picket lines or snitch on striking staff or suggesting that repeated industrial action is the cause of the commodification of education.

Striking has always been seen as a positive force for change in my family, coming as I do from a line of factory workers and teachers, so I was already in support of the strike – but I was astonished by how many of my fellow students felt differently. They complained about the money they were paying to miss lectures, the timing of the strike and the disruption it was causing. “That’s the whole point!”, I wanted to say, but instead, I stayed quiet and tried not to cause arguments.

After the Teach-out, I won’t be staying quiet. As students, we must stand with our striking staff and remember that they fight every day for us, and work tirelessly to ensure we get the most from university – we must be prepared to do the same for them. A common saying during the strike has been “our working environment is your teaching environment”. This couldn’t be truer.

Over the course of the Teach-Out, there was a recurring theme: the difference between the university we would like to create, which fostered learning for its own sake, and was inclusive and embraced difference and debate, and the university we currently experience, where career prospects and “value for money” have become the overwhelming focus.

We kept returning to the idea that some courses (such as mine, history) are becoming elitist because those with a less secure background are choosing degrees with a clear career outcome – and that this is part of the global process which forces workers to the margins, living paycheck to paycheck so they have no time or energy to consider the larger problems of the system, and what they might do to change them.

I have heard it said that university staff should be grateful they have it so good, after all, how hard is lecturing compared to working down the mines or in factories? This again is a complete misunderstanding of the purpose and spirit behind the strikes. Staff aren’t striking because they think they’re better than any other workers, or because they think their work is harder, but because they believe in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the fundamental dignity of work and their (and everyone’s) right to be paid and treated decently at work. 

In the lead up to the general election, these conversations seem particularly relevant. The UCU strike is about casualisation, fair pay, fair hiring practices, and protecting staff pensions: for me, these are wider problems facing most members of our society, which we should all care about in every sector. One only needs to remember that postal workers are also in the midst of mass industrial action, as are McDonald's workers, to give just two examples.

The staff I have talked to feel similarly, that these problems are not exclusive to higher education, and threaten the mental and physical wellbeing of every worker. Therefore, at a time when we can all make a difference in a way we so rarely can, I would firmly encourage all students, and all staff, to stand up for each other and for all those grappling with these problems.

To do this, we must work towards a fairer society, one which recognises the fundamental dignity of work – something we cannot do under a Conservative government.

So, as the election looms, please talk to your friends, your colleagues, your students, and remind them that we’re all in this together, that we need each other, and that the best way to protect each other is to vote for a Labour government.

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