Why I’m On Strike #3

To end this round of picketing, we held a Student-Staff Solidarity Rally outside Great St Mary’s. Julia, a UTO in History, spoke to us about the fight we’re all in to transform our education, and our university, for the better. Here is a version of that speech:

Hi everyone. It’s wonderful to be here, after weeks of pickets and meetings and conversations with many of you.

I want to tell you about one of the harder parts of striking. During a strike, I always wind up having a particular kind of conversation with a non-striking colleague or two. I had one of these conversations on Monday. My colleague explained that he just could not deprive students of teaching, not right now, not after everything students have been through in the last two years. And I trust that this colleague meant what he said.

No matter how resolute I feel about a strike, this statement from a colleague always shakes me. I love teaching; I agonize over cancelled lectures or classes. For it to be implied that non-striking colleagues simply care more about students than striking colleagues is very hard.

But then I remember – oh, right, this is actually the same line that the university takes.

That people who really care about students don’t strike. The Vice Chancellor told us this in all-staff email back in the autumn. It nicely pits students against staff, deflecting attention from management, and the conditions under which we work and learn. (More on management soon.)

There are ways in which the strike issues materially affect the student experience, undergraduate and graduate. Supervisors who are paid fairly, for example, are able to fully prepare a topic and provide detailed feedback. Lecturers with sustainable workloads are more likely to respond in a timely fashion to your email asking whether they would consider supervising your dissertation. (I give this example because I have four of those emails languishing in my inbox right now.)

Stable jobs and decent working conditions are also a pre-condition for diversifying the faculty at Cambridge and across the UK, a change that we know students ardently want to see. The path from PhD student to lecturer requires years of low-paid teaching and job uncertainty. The people most able to ride out those years are those with a safety net.

If academia is to be open to all, to reflect the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup of the UK, it must create conditions that allow PhD students and early-career academics to be self-supporting.

The strike issues may also affect students’ futures, and I am fighting for those futures as well as for my own. If academic jobs deteriorate ever further on my watch, those are the kinds of jobs my MPhil or PhD students will move into. I don’t feel I can train graduate students without also advocating for an academic system in which graduate students and staff are valued, and in which they will be paid fairly for their labour.

I know all of these rationales backwards and forwards, but still, when a colleague explains that they can’t justify striking and depriving their students, I am unsettled.

The thing that ultimately reassures me is… you. Students. You are connecting the dots. You know that students and staff are on the same side, both being squeezed by a university that wants to amass students’ fees while paying staff less and less. You are supporting us, just as we have (I hope) supported you across your time at the university.

Now back to management. Management wins, and alienates students and staff from one another, when they convince students that education is a transactional experience. Students purchase a degree, at an ever-rising price. That degree needs to prove a good investment, and to provide quick returns. After all, students are buying on speculation; so many students take out loans, and pay for their degree with money that they don’t have.

Sometimes, in a supervision, I can see that a student has succumbed to this way of thinking. They see me as the keeper of exam secrets and strategies, and I struggle to get them to take risks or unexpected paths in conversation. Some students can be laser-focused on exam results, so they can get the right summer internship, so they can get the high-paying job they are after – so they can repay their loans. And who can blame them?

But all of you here today prove that management has not won, because you know that education is not transactional; it is transformational. Universities can and should be spaces where students learn to think in the biggest possible ways about the world they live in. They should be places where students stumble across new interests by accident and discover capabilities and talents that they didn’t know they had. Even though you, students, face the pressures of fees and debts, you are finding room – just by being here at this rally – to think about the good you want to do, the change you want to make, over and above the money you need to earn. Even if the government has decided that education is a product to be sold, you know that education is a civic good. It enriches individual lives; it teaches us to discern good information from bad; and it prepares us to defend democracy where it is imperiled, which at the moment seems to be just about everywhere.

I tell students that a strike itself can be a transformational education. I think they mostly roll their eyes at me; maybe it sounds like I’m putting an implausibly positive spin on the situation. But I really believe it. This is a moment to lift the lid on the university, and the society that produces it. What kinds of labour are valued and what kinds of labour are not? Why are certain topics and subjects taught here, and not others? How are powerful institutions governed, and whose interests do they serve? What is driving rising inequality in the UK, and what can be done to stop it? Just by diving into the issues at stake in this strike – going to teach outs, talking to those of us who are striking – I promise you will learn more about the world you live in than you might have learned in a missed lecture.

So here’s to this time that we’ve spent together, today and on the pickets and in the future. Here’s to student-staff solidarity, and to a better future for higher education.