In the run-up to the UCU strike in defence of lecturers’ pensions, some students have proposed the demand of fee refunds for teaching lost to strike action – ostensibly to place pressure on the bosses. We in the UCU appreciate the solidarity from students who want to support our action, but this particular demand plays into the hands of management by painting our strike as an encumbrance on students and playing into the capitalist language of marketisation. If you want to help us, join us on the picket lines in making this strike as impactful as possible!
I want to stress that need support from proactive students who want to help our struggle, and although we are sure this particular demand would not have the desired effect, there are plenty of things students can do instead, such as:
- Joining us on the picket line during strike days.
- Emailing your vice-chancellors and insisting they come out in support of our demands.
- Sending motions to your student union, committing them to supporting our strike action (you can find a model here).
- Sending messages of support to your lecturers and seminar tutors – this is great for morale!
- Joining your local Labour Party ward/branch or Momentum group and asking for their support in politicising our campaign.
Why we are striking
University lecturers will strike across Britain from 22 February in response to a brutal attack on pensions that could cost ordinary academics £10,000 a year. The bosses point to a $7bn deficit in pensions, and are making lecturers foot the bill by shunting them onto a risky scheme that will float their pensions on the stock market. The counter-reform to the USS pension scheme is the latest in a series of damaging, capitalist measures undermining the Higher Education sector: from rampant casualization to the removal of student bursaries.
While students’ education suffers and workers endure abuse, Vice-chancellors soak up your fees. Ed Byrne, ‘President and Principal’ of my university, King’s College London, receives a salary of £458,000, representing a 29 percent increase on his predecessor. Having benefited from such extravagance, he and other vice-chancellors are now seeking to cut the pensions of their own staff by up to 40 percent, on top of a 15 percent pay cut on average over the past seven years. Our higher education sector has been casualised and marketised to within an inch of its life, and this latest move could cost lecturers their security in old age: it is not fair, the bosses are to blame, and we need student support to fight back.
Problems with the refund demand
A recent article in The National Student proposed that students should raise the demand of refunds for any days of strike action. The article clearly states its support for the strike, and places the onus on the bosses’ organisation (Universities UK) to cover the expense. Campaign materials produced by the group behind the article also state their support for free education, and offer solidarity with lecturers who stand to see their pensions cut.
The sentiment and support are both deeply appreciated. The author clearly understands that students and lecturers are in this fight together. However, the particular strategy proposed and the language involved (inadvertently, I believe) offer weapons to management. The article paints the strike as an inconvenience that leaves students in the ‘impossible’ situation of having to choose between undermining their teachers or letting their educations suffer:
“This strike has thus left students between a rock and a hard place: we either have to cross the picket lines of academics fighting to defend our education, or sacrifice hundreds of pounds’ worth of tuition fees, paid for dearly by our own labour or that of our parents.”
It is not the strike that leaves students ‘between a rock and a hard place’, it is decades of marketisation of the education sector by parasitic vice-chancellors and their Tory cronies! And the same is true of staff, many of whom are risking docked wages to stand up for our profession. We appreciate that the strike puts students in a difficult position: particularly international students who have paid an eye-watering amount to study in Britain. But this is only a measure of how bad things have become. We have reached this situation because our working conditions have become untenable following consistent pay-cuts and counter-reforms. Underpaid, overworked and underappreciated teachers are buckling under the weight of exploitation. Meanwhile, the best part of students’ extortionate fees, which load them up with punishing debt, are not even re-invested in teaching – they go to expensive real estate projects designed to rope in more students (particularly internationals) and line the pockets of senior management.
Students did not ask for this situation – neither did lecturers. But if we do not fight, the attacks on workers and students will continue – that is an economic reality. The marketisation of education is the consequence of capitalism cannibalising state services in period of economic crisis – given the exhaustion of markets to which it can expand. The ‘choice’ the author describes is no choice at all – the problem flows directly from the capitalist system itself. Demanding a refund for teaching hours lost will not change the fundamental situation. If you care about defending the education sector, the only choice is to stand with us in our struggle.
The cost of marketisation
The article also ‘costs’ teaching in a way that is unfortunately straight out of the marketisation playbook:
“Almost a million students across the UK (not counting the Open University)…stand to lose nearly three working weeks of education to this strike, at a cost in excess of £675 per student. In total, this is a loss of over £650m.”
Isn’t the whole problem that the bosses treat students like consumers, and universities businesses? Why are we justifying this kind of commercial language? Our attitude should be that free education is a public good, which should be free to all and paid for by expropriating the fat-cat capitalists hell-bent on destroying that public good. Costing the strike in this way simply invites management to sew resentment in the student body by saying, “look how much money these lecturers are costing you!” In a statement to the UCU, the campaign group admitted this demand could be exploited by the right-wing of the student body, and that we must ‘head them off at the pass’ by connecting the demand to the fight for free education. This might be well-intentioned, but it will be a gift to the bosses.
Finally, the article cites the precedent of rail companies like Northern Railway and Southern Rail offering refunds to commuters who decide not to travel on strike days, and airlines who offer compensation to travellers whose flights are cancelled or delayed due to strike action. The author argues that “such refunds benefit both travellers and workers; travellers get their money back if they cannot or choose not to use the affected services, and strike-breaking by travellers or workers is less likely.”
In fact, these refunds were provided by the Tory government and transport bosses in order to undermine public support for the strikes. Here is a statement by Tory Rail Minister, Paul Maynard, after a consumer refund was offered to Southern rail customers during their 2016 strike action: “When things do go wrong it is right that we compensate people who have not had the service that they deserve. This is a gesture in recognition of the problems people have faced.” The message is clear – the workers are to blame for the inconvenience, don’t blame us: here’s your money back.
A strike means a strike
Ed Byrne released a statement to King’s students promising ‘business as usual’ during the strike period. The refund campaign (along with other floated suggestions that staff rearrange their teaching for non-strike days, or students informally teach themselves) supports this agenda, which is aimed at minimising the disruption. But a strike is supposed to be a disruption. And the more disruptive it is, the more likely we are to win. A strike is a strike. Any shows of weakness or half-measures will invite aggression. We should aim to shut our universities down until the bosses give way.
This strike is about more than pensions: it is the biggest action the UCU has taken in recent memory, and must become a focal point for resisting the marketization of education and attacks on the public sector more generally. Only through solidarity between students and staff across the country can we turn this campaign into a struggle to end capitalist exploitation. Students and workers, unite and fight!
By Joe Attard (UCU, personal capacity)