by Alex Powell

As a Graduate Teaching Fellow, I hold a position that straddles the roles of student and staff, giving me a slightly unusual perspective on the UCU strike action that begins today. It is from this conflicted, complex and, at times like these, compromised position that I wish to lay out why I will be standing with colleagues from 61 other institutions around the country in joining the strike action.

Staff members who are planning to be engaged in the action have already been sharing their stories over the past few days. In these accounts they have clearly laid out the reasons for the strike being called. I see no reason to replicate that. Rather, I want to outline the factors in my own personal decision to join the strike, as a way of demonstrating the complexity of the relationships involved in this action.

Firstly, I recognise the concerns of students. While the repeated calls for tuition fee refunds for days lost to the strike action is symptomatic of a growing consumerist logic within higher education, it is important that we do not chastise or blame students for adopting that logic. Students are being treated as consumers by institutions (though not by academics), so we should not be surprised when they act accordingly. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge the logic of consumerism within higher education, but it does mean that we should not invalidate the standpoints of students simply because we ideologically disagree with the narrative that underlies their position.

I truly hope that students will feel able to show solidarity with us

Concerns regarding lost teaching time are certainly legitimate. The strikes, and the action short of striking which surrounds them, will have dramatic effects on teaching and student support within all striking institutions. Students are right to be concerned – indeed, as a tutor, I am thrilled to see students so passionate about missed teaching time. Of course, the impact of the strikes will fall heaviest on those students in their final year, with exams and dissertation deadlines fast approaching. To them all I can really say is, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry about the timing of this strike, but please try to understand that we do not feel like we have been left with a choice.

I also recognise that colleagues who are on temporary contracts, have financial obligations to meet, or who feel unable to let down their students may disagree with the strike, or choose not to strike even if they agree with it in principle. I do not think it right to shame them for that. However, I do think that any academic who can afford to strike, and feels able to square striking with their responsibility to their students, should feel obligated to show solidarity. And I truly hope that students will feel able to show solidarity with us too.

The personal decision for me to join the strike has been particularly fraught. As a Graduate Teaching Fellow, my contract technically functions as a studentship. This has lead to a great deal of uncertainty regarding the legality of taking part in strike action. Further, as I am currently in my first year of teaching, I harbour a good deal of anxiety about the potential impact taking part in the action could have on my module evaluation performance. Finally, I have had concerns about the specific impacts my striking will have on my students. For example, if the entire period of action goes ahead, half of my groups will end up missing 2 out of the 4 tutorials on one module – half of all the small group teaching on the module.


Images from UCU picket lines around the country this morning. Credit: Cardiff UCU, Imperial College UCU,  LSHTM UCU, Nottingham UCU

However, despite all these considerations, fears, and anxieties, I have had one underlying feeling since the ballot at my institution was returned: obligation. I feel obligated to support my colleagues. I feel obligated to show solidarity with their struggle, and with the struggle of academics around the country to fight against what will be a de-facto, if deferred, pay cut. Finally, I feel an obligation to myself, to fight against not just this change, but the sweeping changes government are making to a sector I have spent my life waiting to enter. Because this change is not really just about pensions. It’s another step towards seeing universities as businesses instead of providers of a public good.

Students, remember: staff are on your side. During this action, between the 14 days of actual strike, you will have many good chances to witness just how far over and above academic staff go for you. During these days staff will be working to contract and not undertaking any voluntary activities, clearly demonstrating just how much additional work staff put in for students each and every day. Staff have stood with students in opposition to tuition fees. Many staff have stood with students against the discriminatory and counter-productive Prevent strategy. Staff have given their time, voluntarily, to improve your education experience more times than you or I could count. Won’t you please stand with us now?

Featured image courtesy of UCU

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