As students partake in a mass exodus from universities over the Easter holidays, the bitter dispute in which the University College Union (UCU) and University and College Employers Union (UCEA) have been embroiled since the beginning of the academic year is coming to a head. Since October, UCU dissatisfaction with pay in higher education has manifested itself in strikes (the union claims that university staff have suffered a real terms pay cut of 15 per cent since 2009), with lectures and tutorials cancelled. This week marks the date of final talks before a proposed marking boycott is set to take place, on 28 April .
Perhaps unsurprisingly, universities have been quick to rally against the threat of a boycott, arguing that striking lecturers are seeking to use students as a form of leverage in a professional dispute. But by attempting to pit students against those participating in a boycott, they’re just as guilty of exploiting us. These attempts belie the extent to which centres of higher education are increasingly considered businesses first and places for learning later - with universities framing the dispute over a boycott as one predicated on the provision of service. Figuring students as customers – and industrial action as a failure to provide said service – erodes the potential of institutions to facilitate meaningful collaboration between students and staff, and ultimately undermines any spirit of camaraderie on campus.
Where students’ unions have opposed the boycott, where students have attempted to minimise the impact of industrial action by staging their own lectures, proponents of such measures have argued that they have the best interests of students at heart.
Such an argument, quite frankly, misses the point. The challenges faced by university staff haven’t arisen in a vacuum. Rather, they’re symptomatic of the same neoliberal agenda which has given us increased tuition fees and informed the restructuring of university hierarchies to facilitate an influx of managerial staff, at the expense of academics. While vice chancellors’ salaries creep steadily upwards, offers made to on-the-ground staff haven’t even exceeded the rate of inflation. And instead of being encouraged to engage critically with these realities, we’re told to channel our energies into boosting our employability (in itself, a problematic entity), with some institutions even replacing academic modules with classes on CV writing and networking. If university is supposed to help us question the world we live in, is it doing its job?
The sea change in third-level education over the past few decades has been staggering. In such a climate, it may seem paradoxical that student activism appears to be dying out. But really, it’s unsurprising. We’re warned often enough about the treacherous job market: most students just want to make to the other side of their degrees and be in a position to start earning a wage. Yet, faced with the prospect of a marking boycott, we finally have the opportunity to take the first step towards positive, lasting change.
Indeed, some already have (the National Union of Students passed a motion of solidarity with the boycott, as did my own union). Such gestures, however, will ring hollow if they aren’t backed by the support of our wider student bodies. It’s up to us to fight for an education system as it should be: one wherein the staff that make the difference to our time at university, that encourage and inspire us, are valued. For that reason, if a marking boycott goes ahead, we should stand behind it.