If you haven't already heard through the grapevine or in lectures and tutorials, you undoubtedly will in the next few weeks: the biggest higher education strike to date will take place in the UK. 61 universities will have 14 days of strikes from the 22th of February to the 16th of March.
What is at stake? Lecturer pensions are about to be axed £10,000 a year upon retirement, as estimated by the University and College Union (UCU).
Full disclaimer: I fully support the strike. I believe that this change in pension regimes is a consequence of neo-liberalism, which I am very critical of to say the least. I believe academics are the heart of the universities and while they are not in it for the money, universities at large are and that is missing the point of what university should be about. Not breeding mediocrity in cut and paste graduates but centres of excellence that push the boundaries of knowledge.
As a Frenchman I know that us, the French, are renowned world-over for our tendency to strike; and while not always in work, we have decades of experience to draw upon.
The power of a strike should not be underestimated. In his book "Carbon Democracy" Timothy Mitchell argues that strikes in the energy sector led to the emergence of democracies in the western world, rather than the rise of cities and mass movement. The rise of steam-power from coal during the industrial revolution, Mitchell argues, enabled coal-based workers to shut down the system with the turn of a switch. It facilitated the power of workers and collective agency at economic crunch points to seize power and demand concessions from the owners of industry and government.
The same is not true with oil, however, as production and distribution pipelines are guided by multiple inflection points in a complex web of algorithms that gave western elites renewed control over energy supplies that could cripple an economy. The empowered individuals were now subdued, incapable of bringing the economy to standstill. Impotency of the system was made more robust, marked most notably by Winston Churchill famously switching the British navy fuel to oil. Railroads changed from coal to oil, strike and activism proofing the larger economy from dissenting workforces. Coal provoked democracy while oil curtailed it.
In Mitchell’s perspective, achieving democracy is thus about locating points of vulnerability within technical systems and exploiting them. How this plays into the university strikes then is fundamentally about the threat of sabotage to the day-to-day functioning of university life. Academics pull the strings, and the universities are presented with short-term, finite staff to draw upon to maintain teaching quality and keep students satisfied. By striking, their threat of sabotage risks angering the student body and propels their bargaining position against the Universities.
Strikes are not dabbled in blithely but are a decisive last resort once the avenues of discourse have been tried and failed. That is why it is important to do them well.
During last semester, I was looking forward to it. Being a French student matriculating in the UK, I'm missing the frequency of strikes back home. Full of enthusiastic vigour and rearing to participate, ironically then, when the strike came, all it seemed I could do was read the student paper and university leaflet on the issue. How disappointed I was.
Picket-lines are the main feature you will see on campus during the strike. A handful of lecturers and members of the UCU "raising awareness", hoping students will hear about the issue and send an e-mail to the university. If you are a student, all that lecturers may hope you would do is just that.
This is not how you do a strike.
Firstly, a strike would make whoever is in a situation of power uncomfortable at the very least. I find the actions taken too respectful toward the university. Not that I am advocating destruction, I believe that would accomplish nothing, and possibly even serve to undermine the cause. Instead, why not have a strike inside the Whitworth Hall, make the people in power truly writhe with discomfort, and disrupt their daily routines, forcing acknowledgement rather than optional obliviousness.
The strikes that will happen, in all likelihood, will simply cost the lecturers two weeks of wages. All for the noble deed of "raising awareness" to others; and those others won't be able to do much. As I see it, the strike is a legitimate reaction to the change in the pension system, but it is not structured efficiently to make disruption that will create change. I hope I'm wrong and that as this is the biggest strike ever, it will not consist of picket lines only.
However, from what I have seen during the last one, I don’t see it going much further. I went to a meeting on the 1st floor of the SU. The good ideas are there, the emotion is there and the will to change the structure too, but it won't translate in the form of the current strikes.
Secondly, strikes need scale. You don't even need everyone doing the strike to have a direct interest in the dispute, but you need a lot of people nonetheless. People draw attention and raise profile. The current strikes are too long and are punitive to students by making them miss 14 days. As a 3rd year I will suffer significantly. The strike should make the university suffer, with the help of the students. Losing 14 days of class which won't be returned is a huge loss for any student.
Anger is legitimately rising. But instead of letting students blaming the academics for their lost learning, the UCU members that partook in strikes should take more time to explain to the students the aims and purposes of the strikes. Collectively, the targets of student and academic should be the university bosses that created this situation. Most academics are content to do their job to a high standard, lead research in their fields and feel valued by the university they work with.
Get the student on your side, is what I'm saying. Ask for all of them to help you create actual disruption in the universities. Many would be happy to. The University’s attempts to minimise the student voice in response to the strikes often succeeds in wading out until the storm blows over.
The University claims to be "not able to negotiate USS pension provision independently" and that their “intention [is] to maintain, as far as possible, normal operations during industrial action to safeguard the interests of our students and staff.”
Narratives of damage limitation are superficial because they could have sought cuts elsewhere than the pensions of the university’s greatest assets: the academics. It may be too easy for students to overlook the issue and consider the lecturers as greedy and selfish, demanding more concessions from their impregnable comfort in the annals of higher education.
Even if most students come to terms with the true realities of the issue and actively support lecturers in emailing and petitioning the university collectively; it appears that refunds are already being sought rather than giving full support behind their lecturers to resolve the issue before it gets to that stage. Naivety at best and selfishness at worst.
Come what may, collective action of students and staff in a short window, seizing university property and Whitworth buildings and a jointly signed petition by the thousands matriculating here would unequivocally end the ordeal before matters of reimbursement should hit the ground running. I’m ready to clash swords with the uni behemoths; question is, are you?
Lioui Benhamou is a third Year Politics and International Relations student at The University of Manchester
Edited 16-02-2018 02:12 GMT