The strike is still on. University staff overwhelmingly came out in opposition to Monday’s proposal from Universities UK – and the terms were officially rejected yesterday. With industrial action continuing at least through to the end of the week, we as students now need to reconsider one particular aspect of our response to the ongoing industrial action. It is now time for escalation, not reaction – and any student demands for compensation – at least until the strike is won – are incompatible with our support for staff at our universities.
Through the strike so far, the response of the student population has come to be defined primarily by such demands. By the start of the strike 100,000 students across the country had signed petitions demanding compensation from their universities for the disruption caused by the strike action. In the roughly 65 universities affected by the strike, the disruption had affected students for only two days. Earlier in the strike, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced that at least one university was “looking at direct compensation” for students facing disruption during the strikes. Last week, Kings College London announced it would be setting up a fund to compensate students, redirecting money saved from striking lecturers’ salaries to refund students.
This, of course, does not reflect the reality on the picket lines, where students have stood side-by-side with staff for hours in freezing temperatures, rain and snow, and in the occupations and demonstrations at universities from Cambridge to Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton and Sheffield – to name only a few. Yet, despite the action of radical student organisations, the general position of students continues to be expressed primarily through the framework of reaction to the disruption of the strike action.
At some point, it may well be possible to make the case that these demands would exert heightened financial pressures on universities’ managements attempting to limit the impact of the strike. Today is still not the day – there remains no way of balancing support for the strike while simultaneously demanding compensation.
These question is already being answered on the pickets lines across the UK.
The point of the strike is our disruption: the power of the strike is exerted by not teaching students, by staff withholding their labour in the only possible way they can. We must not fail to recognise that staff do not want to take this action – they want to teach, just as much (and if not more) than we want to learn. The severity of the pension cuts and the punitive means through which they are to be enacted have produced this situation – not our lecturers nor the staff at our universities.
It may be difficult to accept, but all students professing to support the strike must acknowledge that we cannot seek to compensate for our disruption. We cannot turn to the very people – university VCs and senior managers – pushing through the pension cuts to demand compensation to offset the disruption caused by these very same actions. Though it is likely that, on the whole, demands for compensation are being proposed as a tactic in raising the pressure, this does not counteract the dubious binary we are presenting to university managements: enter into negotiations over the proposed pension cuts or refund our fees for the tuition we’ve missed.
Refunding tuition fees is the “get out of jail slightly cheaper” card for university management
What, we must ask ourselves, is the more appealing option? To a degree, it is true that any university capitulating to compensation demands would set a precedent for any future strike action, increasing the potential costs to the university if they are expected to pay out on each occasion for cancelled tuition. Yet, before this year, when was the last time tuition was cancelled as a consequence of strike action? Should the dispute be defeated, how likely is it that such action would be replicated? When almost half of their pension has already been lost, it may well be the case that the costs will simply be too high. We may be setting a precedent – but it may be long after losing the war.
The short-term implications, too, are worth consideration. By demanding compensation, the dynamic of power shifts from the academic community back to university managements. Should the second option to refund tuition fees be selected – the “get out of jail slightly cheaper” card – how exactly would compensation rates be set? It could be calculated in reference only to those who were able to take strike action and declared they had done so or based on registers taken during strike days – this second possibility essentially constituting a financial incentive for students to cross the picket line. This compensation – as has been proposed at KCL – will be rerouted from deducted staff pay to a student compensation fund. Taking the demand for compensation to its logical conclusion, it is difficult to see a way in which students actually wield any considerable power or influence over their universities.
We must be ready for the strike to continue into the summer term.
Moving forward from compensation demands, which direction to take? Well, this question is already being answered on the pickets lines across the UK. Students must continue to redirect their disruption toward university managements, to Universities UK and the government. We must turn to our peers, urging them to remain on the right side of the picket line, to boycott classes that have not been cancelled, while acting to occupy valuable spaces and shut down what remains functional at our universities.
The conversation must evolve further still, moving away from demanding compensation to taking back the future of our institutions. We must be ready for the strike to continue into the summer term. We must plan for the long-term, to ensure we win in the short. It is time for us to start talking about withholding our money wherever the university still seeks to claim it, to start planning graduation boycotts, organising rent strikes and fee strikes. It is time to escalate: to stop demanding compensation, to start taking action – and to begin reclaiming our universities.