If you think honesty matters, support the UCU strike: Ignoring the vice chancellors’ panicked bluster

Ponder this: In the early 21st century, we imagine that universities are places where we push the envelope of human knowledge. Here, we’re meant to study and debate what we believe to be true. So what does it actually mean when the six‑figure‑salary vice chancellors – who’re meant to represent these institutions – are so habitually dishonest?

Over the week leading up to the current strike by UCU, university bosses tried several disgraceful scare tactics to intimidate students from supporting striking staff. University of Liverpool sent students an email bluntly telling them that joining pickets would be ‘unlawful’. The letter also said, ‘international students who chose not to cross picket lines to attend teaching sessions risk jeopardising their visa.’ Similarly, activists have reported equally hostile letters at many universities were staff are striking.

Bosses at Sheffield Hallam University, meanwhile, defended their call-out to students to snitch on striking lecturers (which quickly backfired!). They said it was ‘to help us ensure that students do not miss anything essential, we are monitoring what activities are impacted [by the strike].’

University bosses choose to bully us

Let’s be perfectly clear on two points: what puts students’ visas at risk is bosses reporting them to the Home Office. Universities who regurgitate malice about visa status like that in Liverpool are essentially making deportation threats. That’s an implicit invocation of violence to stop our international friends from helping the union. It’s university bosses doing the bidding of Tory immigration restrictions.

Secondly, students are quite capable of keeping track of our own lectures, thank you very much. I don’t think we need Big Brother monitoring our attendance to get through the week. It’s a bizarre and unnatural encroachment on our freedom to manage our own time. In fact, universities invented their obsession with strict attendance records as a way to score points in league tables.

The point about picketing is also misleading. Of course students can stand alongside a picket line to show their support for staff. In this sense of the word, we can ‘join’ pickets by standing next to them; we’re still supporting them even if we’re not technically on the picket line. I’d like to see someone try prevent us using our civil liberties to protest on a pavement outside a university. It’s not dissuading me a least.

The Tories’ Trade Union Act is, nevertheless, draconian in some petty regards. Members of the public who aren’t involved in the dispute can’t legally don armbands saying ‘official picket’. However, it’s certainly our unequivocal moral right to stand alongside the people who make our education possible. I’ll be joining the pickets and I dare any vice chancellor to stop me.    

University of Liverpool criminology lecturer
Emily Hart comments on her university’s letter to students.

A strike is our chance to picture a better university

We have many reasons to all respect picket lines and support our teaching assistants and lecturers. We can’t let the discriminatory gender pay gap continue in higher education. And if you think the cuts to pay and pensions in universities aren’t as bad as at other workplaces, just wait until bosses elsewhere use the general decline in standards to justify even more cuts. In short, everyone deserves much better.

However, the opportunities this strike presents have delighted me. It’s our opportunity to to tell these bullying vice chancellors and communications executives what’s what. Their scare tactics and mass surveillance expose them as dictatorial 1984-wannabees. So let’s laugh at their faces. We’ll show the bosses that their days of pushing us around are done when we stand in solidarity alongside the picketers.

For decades conservatives have run persistent and reactionary propaganda to tell us that there’s a tyranny of ‘political correctness’. They want us to believe that students are able to police what we’re allowed to say. Undoubtedly, some students have told provocatives, like Katie Hopkins, to take their nonsense off campus in certain situations. But only one set of people have used institutional power and implied threats of violence to shut down dissent. They’re vice chancellors, HR directors and PR executives. It’s always been the bosses who’re the totalitarian control freaks.

The sooner they lose the power to bully us the better. And here’s the good part: there’s many more of us than there are of them. See you at the pickets!

Photo credit: Duncan Harris, under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Want to write a reply? Email me at david.dahlborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.

Opinion Editor. Cambridge History PhD student.

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