Barred colleges and libraries, canceled exams, postponed essays and a full email stop: For the last four weeks, professors and faculty members at 61 universities and colleges across the United Kingdom ceased their work.
The University and College Union (UCU), which has around 190,000 teachers nationwide, ceased their work for 14 strike days over a four-week time period. Professors and lecturers are fighting for their pensions, because in the course of a planned pension reform of the employers' association Universities U.K. (UUK), their pension contributions are to be traded on the stock market. The union calculates losses of about 10,000 pounds on average per person, per year.
How effective is the strike actually?
However, it is quite disputable how effective it is going to be, since the last four weeks of the strike have shown that the union did not receive the expected support. First and foremost it needs to be understood that the support of the students should have been the most strategic power behind a possible success of the strike. Yet, the students failed to be included to the process and therefore have not shown unity with their lecturers. In this case, although a deep sympathy was offered to the lecturers, the whole process of not conveying the means and markers of the strike as well as not answering emails, hindering access to libraries and school buildings, resulted in anger and disappointment. On top of that, there have been no serious channels of information, so students were forced to be in the dark.
The whole protest failed to address students, especially the ones who came to the U.K. mainly for their education. Only SOAS (University of London) itself has more than 5,000 students from 133 different countries. According to its website, over 50 percent of these students are from outside of the U.K.
The question, why the director of SOAS, who happens to be on the Board of the UUK, did not support UCU members in their fight against the pension cuts and hinder a possible strike that has devastating impacts on students' education, to begin with, remains unsolved. The university managements and the UUK failed to properly negotiate with the UCU and ignored the previous shorter strikes.
Why the majority of students feel betrayed?
The reason why the strike did not appeal to students is obvious, of course every student would want their professor to have a fair pension and treated gently by the state and school administrations. It is an undeniable fact that higher living standards for lecturers would only result in higher education quality. This fact should have been acknowledged by the UUK and the strict school managements. The strike is supposed to hit university managements as hard as possible, yet it seems this negotiation process has only been hurting students, who had to pay high tuition fees to begin with. University College London (UCL) for example, will neither refund any tuition fees, nor reschedule any classes. Considering the fact that a one-year postgraduate program costs around 10,000 pounds for EU citizens and up to 20,000 pounds for international students coming from outside of the EU, this strike has been financially hurtful. The fact that these very short programs have high prices and are now being hindered makes students feel like they have been betrayed. Away from scheduled essays, students were supposed to discuss their dissertation topics and approaches with their supervisors, who are not responding to any emails. Associated staff members have no answers either while submission dates are getting closer. Student's sacrifices are being overlooked and even used as tools to have the upper hand during the negotiation process.
The lecturer's dilemma
Lecturers are being put in a very harsh position, since they not only risk their salaries, but also their reputations. They also feel the dilemma of being in a dispute with school administrations and their own students at the same time. After the rejection of the new offer proposed by the UUK in the beginning of the fourth week, the union plans to launch another strike during the exam period in April again. This grading boycott will endanger the degrees of thousands of students nationwide.
Otherwise, another time period of blocking main entrances, occupying buildings and even trying to keep students from studying in libraries, would not only cause the loss of students' sympathy toward the staff, but also put lecturers in a position where they would be blamed instead of the UUK. Especially forcing the majority of students into feeling the same way, titling the lecturers as "traitors" bullying when they do not participate in the strike and even getting physical should not be the strategy behind the upcoming strike period.
Of course a crucial question to ask is, do universities in the U.K. really need to cut down on their budgets in a situation where tuition fees keep on being uniquely high? According to the UUK, the current system is in crisis and has a funding deficit of 7.5 billion pounds. "Most universities can no longer afford to spend more on pensions without saving on other areas such as teaching or research," says UUK chairman Alistair Jarvis. This should be balanced with the reform to ensure "sustainable and attractive pensions for its members." The union, on the other hand, argues that the sector is booming as privatization progresses. Pensions should not be "betrayed on the stock market." In the long term, a pension reform could lead many teachers to relocate to other countries, possibly exacerbated by Brexit.
The U.K. has been identifying itself with a liberal education system and will often promote itself that way, but this process has proven, that even the education system is highly affected by capitalism and the so-called cultivation of a free human being is no longer of any interest. Ethics and the challenge of empowering individuals by giving them knowledge and an educational foundation are being put aside with no hesitation. That is the reason why despite the rising tuition fees and student numbers, institutes continue to close or rename less favorable departments, increase the workload of lecturers and create unstable working conditions. This process can be seen as a strictly business decision by senior management members. The current consumer-driven education system is a result of this decision and is unfortunately used by young students, solely to increase their chances on the job market.
The university has not been informing students, let alone helps them navigate internal and external conflicts in life, like a liberal education system actually should. Has this whole image of a thoughtful educational framework of the U.K. been a hoax?