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28th February 2023

It’s time to demand compensation for UCU strikes

Amid the largest-ever university staff strikes, it’s possible for students to demand compensation, and support their lecturers in doing so
It’s time to demand compensation for UCU strikes
Photo: Ewan McAndrew (Stinglehammer) @ Wikimedia Commons

This semester, we are experiencing the biggest and most serious university staff strikes to have ever occurred in the UK. Although there is widespread support amongst the student body for the striking tutors and lecturers, I would like to draw attention to how severely students are being affected. It is not right that we should suffer the brunt of an event that is not our fault. We have a right to demand compensation – for both the educational and financial losses we are experiencing.

Crucially, as well as putting money back in our pockets for a service for which we paid and did not receive, demanding compensation will also help the UCU cause. Discontented students asking for refunds provides an additional outlet for pressure against both universities and the government. Student action has often been aligned with labour and trade union movements, and this would be no different. Throw in the current rent strike as another source of resistance, and you have three simultaneous movements to help the overall effort.

I direct this to the University executive, in particular Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell, who holds sole responsibility for the strikes by failing to pay staff properly. I also speak on behalf of my peers, voicing their views and concerns. Identities will remain anonymous so as to protect their confidentiality.

Let me spell out the effects of the strikes to you.

Academics who are part of the UCU, which has over 120,000 members nationally, will provide no classes on strike days. In most cases, lecture slides will not even be posted online. There will be delays in the marking of work, and semester one assessments will be returned late. Office hours will not take place on strike days, and should a student have an issue, teachers will not be available to help.

Some courses are setting up self-teaching groups, or “Teach-outs”, where students lead the class themselves. We must question what the long-term effects of such educational disruptions will be. How will we cope when it comes to the semester two exams? How will the impact be felt on key vocational students, such as medical students, missing content?

Financially, we will squander all the money we paid for strike days. We must remember that students are also subject to the current inflation, so simply cannot afford to waste such volumes of money. Unfortunately, university, supposedly a vessel of learning and opportunity, has been degraded to a level where it is quantified by its financial value. Yet, it was the government that ‘marketised’ the experience, with fees only being introduced in 1998. Put bluntly, if you’re going to treat us as though we are ‘customers’, you have to expect us to act like customers.

As one student described it, “if that’s how they’re treating it, that’s how we should treat it”. As with any supermarket, clothing shop, or online retailer in the country, if you are not receiving what you’ve paid for, you deserve your money back.

This sentiment is undoubtedly shared by students across campus. One first-year commuter student told me “as much as I support the strikes, I’m not getting what I’m paying for. It’s not an easy decision to come to uni.” They added that they would “like to be a teacher, and I understand the importance of having a well-rounded education to teach people. Witnessing people strike, it worries me that going into teaching, I won’t be treated well. If this is how much they value the teaching – £9250 a year – then they should understand the value of the education we’re missing out on and therefore they should compensate us somehow.”

As well as having concerns about the treatment of educators, they voiced financial concerns, stating that “I’ve worked out that per university hour, I pay £40. Thinking about this over 18 strike days, paying and getting nothing out, I just don’t think that’s acceptable.”*

*Note that this figure will depend on the number of contact hours that the course has, and so may vary.

International students are perhaps the worst victims, with one third-year asking themselves “why I even came here. Because I don’t have any classes until  Feb 21 right now. I could have just stayed in Germany. I don’t know what to do. We are the future, so we deserve to be treated right.”

International students pay extortionately higher fees, up to £40,000 a year depending on the course, and so are arguably more heavily impacted than their home counterparts.

One student emailed University Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell herself in her frustration. The reply, sent on her behalf by an assistant, was underwhelming and disappointing.

“If students experience a problem relating to teaching during the strike, this should be raised with their School directly in the first instance.”

“If it’s not been possible to resolve via this route, a formal complaint may be raised through the University’s complaints procedure.”

Yet, what has become clear from speaking to peers, is that students want direct answers, not bureaucracy. Such feels like yet another tool for delay and avoidance. The university should recognise and value its students’ concerns, not take them for granted.

Calls for compensation from staff strikes have occurred in the past. For example, following the 2018/19 walkouts comprising fourteen days, a petition was set up by University of Manchester students, receiving over 8000 signatures, yet no notable compensation was given. Some students, such as those at Kings College London, did manage to receive compensation, between £122 and £4500, depending on the gravity of the impact on them.

This time, given that strikes will be the longest and most widespread ever, we have all the right to raise our voices again.

Other students around the country have already started to do so. Students at UCL have withheld the last round of tuition fee payments, using the hashtag slogan “#feestrike”. They have called on other universities to do the same.

The University of Manchester’s students have consistently been excellent at standing up to injustices, whether it be the Rent Strike, Reclaim the Night, or the university’s treatment of students during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s time to uphold this tradition once again.

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