Student strike-breakers

How self-interested students helped to undermine the industrial action by British university lecturers seeking more pay.

Edward Hall

Topics Politics

The industrial action by university lecturers in Britain has now been suspended after a deal was reached between the unions and their employers.

The University and College Union (UCU) agreed to a pay rise of 10.37 per cent over 22 months and a 15.5 per cent rise for the lowest-paid non-academic university workers. There will also be an independent review of salaries in 2008, which will examine how much money is available for pay rises from extra revenues gained from top-up fees.

Although the ending of the strike should be welcomed, there are worrying lessons to be learned from the student population’s reaction to it. We witnessed a startling lack of solidarity within higher education and a very small-minded approach to education from many of those students who have benefited greatly from it.

Sally Hunt and Paul Mackney, the general secretaries of the UCU, said: ‘No settlement ever provides everything that you want for members, but we believe that this is the best that can be achieved within the current national negotiating environment.’ Students are partly to blame for creating that negative ‘negotiating environment’, which limited public support for the lecturers.

The majority of the media coverage of the strike showed students moaning about the detrimental effect such industrial action might have on their studies. For instance, 21-year-old fashion student Lucy Macfarlane questioned what students were ‘getting from it’ (university) despite the government ‘putting fees up so much’; she also maligned lecturers for using students as ‘bait’.

This trend of self-centred thinking extended as far as Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), who continually emphasised the ‘extremely difficult time’ students faced during and after the strike, despite the fact that the NUS, officially at least, supported the lecturers’ demand for higher pay. The NUS supported the lecturers’ demands while disagreeing with the only viable method they had of achieving a substantial pay rise – namely, striking during the exam period.

The majority of students are guilty, it seems, of treating education as nothing more than a means to employment, and by doing so they are betraying the very spirit of education.

A survey in the Times Educational Supplement highlighted the bizarre student approach to the strike. Sixty-eight per cent of students agreed that academics deserved higher pay, as did the Bett Committee (1999), the last major independent review of university pay, which recommended a ‘significant increase’ in minimum starting salaries for lecturers and said that those with much responsibility, such as professors, merited ‘rewards more commensurate with the weight of their responsibilities’. However, 77 per cent of students simultaneously opposed the lecturers’ boycott of assessment. It is of course legitimate for students to be concerned about their work going unmarked; however, the student population failed to recognise that the lecturers were not striking out of malice but rather were taking the only course of action through which they could achieve their aims.

If all of the academics in England staged a one-day strike at any other time of the year, as workers in many other industries can, it would have achieved nothing and received little attention. It is only when exams are threatened that lecturers get attention from vice chancellors and media coverage.

Yet Emma Powell, the Student Union president at the University of Kent, where students marched against their lecturers, stated: ‘We don’t want to be used as leverage anymore. We do support the [union’s] demands for better pay but we just want our marks.’

This lack of solidarity within higher education was detrimental to the UCU’s quest for higher pay. The media and public seemed more concerned with the effect the action would have on graduates in the short term than with the decline in wages that has been occurring for nearly 30 years. A mix of self-importance and indifference characterised the student response to the strikes.

The vast majority of those not graduating this year, at least at the University of Durham which I attend, have been apathetic to the action. Very few have attempted to understand the lecturers’ grievances, presuming instead that the strike will be resolved before too long. Those graduating seem to have inflated the importance of obtaining their degree marks instantly over and above the bad pay and neglect of university employees.

On a Durham message board one disgruntled student went as far as to state, disparagingly: ‘The communist lecturers are going to mark our work now, how incredibly charitable of them.’ The embodiment of this absurd student reaction can be seen in the instances where students threatened legal action if their exams were not marked on time. One such student, Lynsey Morris, 22, from Leeds University, said that she expects ‘to get a 2:1, but if I don’t I will appeal. And if that doesn’t work I’ll sue the university for breach of contract or neglect.’

The notion of an institution of education entering into a business agreement/contract with its students is a perversion of the very spirit of education that such institutions must cultivate. Education should not be seen purely as a means to employment, yet it is exactly this mindset that seems widespread among students up and down the country. Education is an end in its own right, a vital component of self-fulfillment; it must not be seen to be subservient to other goals and should not be treated as such.

This rejection of education as an end in itself is a result of a more widespread trend that has permeated the education sector from the top down. Those in charge of universities care little for the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, dismissing it as utopian: as highlighted by the increasing number of vocational courses and the emphasis on results rather than methods. Perhaps the student response was an inevitable outcome of this educational decline. Those on the left worry about liberalising the market in higher education further, but they have missed a vital point. The market already exists in the most damaging place of all – the minds of the students.

Edward Hall is a student at the University of Durham and is currently working as an intern at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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