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From the 10th to the 12th November, Lancaster University Students will have the opportunity to vote in the UCU Strike Referendum deciding whether, “the Students’ Union should support the UCU industrial action this academic year on pensions, and on pay and work conditions.”
Despite the approved policy to support previous UCU industrial action passed during the Students’ Union Annual General Meeting in 2019, the Students’ Union believe they should be, “led by its membership directly on major issues like this.” As a result, the student body has been presented with two campaigns, ‘Lancaster Students Against Disruption’ and ‘Vote Yes To Support Our Staff’.
However, in spite of what should have been YES or NO, these two campaigns don’t appear to be responding to the same question. With strike action or action short of a strike confirmed as non-negotiable, whether the Students’ Union should support the UCU industrial action surely reads as whether the Students’ Union should stand by its staff or support University Management.
If students were to vote no, then the student body would be standing against the staff, allowing University Management to use the lack of student support/participation as ammunition to remain oblivious to disparities in pay, poor working conditions and lack of financial support after retirement.
On the other end of the spectrum, if students were to vote yes, staff and students would stand in solidarity against University Management in a bid to make university more than, “just a business where staff are exploited for profit.”
Unlike ‘Vote Yes To Support Our Staff’ who adopt this approach, ‘Lancaster Students Against Disruption’ instead outwardly appear to be fighting the impact of the strikes on the student body, campaigning for students to vote no in the hope that this academic year won’t be disrupted by strikes. When asked, “if we acknowledge this debate as whether to support the staff or University Management, how does disruption lean into this?” during the Referendum Hustings, the campaign lead for ‘Lancaster Students Against Disruption’ replied that it was a “strawman question” and not the point of the campaign.
Yet, if strike action or action short of a strike has been confirmed as non-negotiable, the disruptive nature of strikes shouldn’t be a reason to vote no and from my understanding, supports University Management rather than the staff fighting to, as noted by SU President Oliver Robinson, “reassert the transformative value that education can have.”
‘Vote Yes To Support Our Staff’ – led by Jude Rowley, PhD student – acknowledge that, “nobody, neither staff nor students, enjoy strikes” but when anything short of strike action is ignored, what are the alternatives?
Should staff be expected to simply put posters up around campus and call it a day?
When 42% of academic staff on casual contracts are struggling to pay household bills, extreme measures become necessary. How can we stand by and allow staff and our fellow students to suffer disparities in pay, poor work conditions, normality of casualisation, have, “no guaranteed income after retirement” and continue to call ourselves a Students’ Union?
If the outcome of this referendum led to the Students’ Union NOT supporting the UCU industrial action this year on pensions, and on pay and work conditions then the student body has failed to recognise the bigger picture beyond disruption.
It’s universally accepted that these strikes will cause further disruptions to student life; the effects it may have on student welfare and education have not been ignored. The Students’ Union will be, “working to mitigate any negative effects to students’ experience and to support all our student members, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.”
But, we must start seeing our university as a, “vibrant community of scholars: not just a business where staff are exploited for profit.”
Those who wish to stand by their belief that the disruptions of strikes outweigh the impact they could have, please note you share that opinion with UCEA’s Chief Executive, Raj Jethwa, who has assumed the stance that the proposed strikes are, “yet another campaign to encourage its members to cause disruption for students through potentially damaging industrial action.”
This is the same man, who after the pay rise negotiations back in May with the Higher Education Unions, declared the UCEA’s 1.5% pay rise as, “fair and meaningful in the context of the sector’s ongoing delicate financial situation” despite this being the first pay rise since August 2019. When the UCU argued that the university sector had seen its total income rise by 15% in the last six years, UCEA refused to listen, finalising the 1.5% pay rise and regarded negotiations as concluded.
For the student body to vote no in this referendum would leave staff to face this exploitation alone, not just lecturers but also PhD students that teach at the University.
Staff versus University Management isn’t a “strawman question”, it’s the choice we are making in this referendum.