NEVER mind your gammons and your boomers: scabs are the new enemy of the moment. Defy the teachers’ strike action taking place at universities across the country at your peril. This is the term you are likely to have thrown your way by pickets and social media mobsters alike. Lecturers who continue to work (perhaps to feed their families), and the students who still get the benefit of their teaching (in the pursuit of knowledge – avant-garde, I know!) are not let off the hook. Brave is he who ‘crosses the picket’.
More than a million students are facing disruption now that academics from 74 universities have signed up to strike over pay and pensions.
As it happens, I sympathise with some of the concerns raised by those striking. Rising student numbers have led in some cases to more burdensome staff loads. The pay of university staff has decreased in real terms in recent years, and they argue their pension scheme requires revision – though it must be said that university staff fare better than many other workers in the public sector. Striking lecturers’ pensions are worth three times the private sector average, Vice Chancellors have pointed out.
But supporters of the strikes have lost sight of the impact of their disruption, especially on learning (surely the whole reason for universities to exist). Students are missing out on four weeks of teaching, or six if you include the strikes late last year. Six weeks of lectures, seminar discussions and tutor meetings out of a nominal 36-week year, all of which has been paid for in advance, by the way, courtesy of student loan debt. According to the strikers’ guidelines, none of this may be reorganised or made up for. Students can just stuff it.
Despite this they are still expected to complete assignments, without any lectures, seminars or – if they were ever lucky enough – tutorials. It’s easy to laugh this off but the anxiety it’s causing students who care (especially those writing their final-year dissertations) shouldn’t be underestimated, especially since welfare staff at many universities have also joined the strikes.
The University and College Union (UCU), which is leading the strike, and the universities involved in the action (including my own) have reassured students not to worry as their grades will not be affected by this teaching breakdown. How so? You may well ask, and it is this aspect of the strikes which irks me the most. Never mind that students will be under-informed and under-prepared, missing out on specialist subject matter or any critical engagement on it; never mind that they cannot receive answers or advice – even via email – from their lecturers; never mind whether they have mastered the subject matter or not, they need not fear for their grades. It does not take much to realise that essays written will be of a significantly lower standard than would otherwise have been the case, so if grades remain unaffected it is because they have been inflated (as they are already across our whole educational establishment). This is a desperately sad indictment of a country which once prized educational rigour and greatness.
Students ‘will not be assessed on any content that, due to disruption, has not been covered adequately’ – I quote a particularly ridiculous line repeated by strikers and universities alike from an email sent to me by my university. This is a very silly thing to say. What the argument essentially posits is that, to write a good-quality essay for a module, you need not attend the lectures and seminars which do not relate directly to the specific question you wish to answer, but only those (often only one) which exclusively cover that singular nook. Say, for example, you are taking a module on post-war politics, and you want to write an essay on Mrs Thatcher’s time as prime minister. This means you don’t need to bother attending the lectures on the ‘post-war consensus’, or anything else for that matter on British politics before 1979 or after 1990. What dumbing-down tosh. What a betrayal of academic achievement being tolerated in universities across the country.
Perhaps is it not surprising that some students have decided to be party to this and taken to the picket lines, placards in hand, alongside their university staff. Why not, when they have been promised a free pass to receive top grades for sub-standard papers?
Neither the teachers engaging in strike action nor the Vice Chancellors, who are not responding to them firmly enough, can wash away the guilt by consoling themselves with the notion that ‘students’ grades aren’t being affected, anyway’. It’s irresponsible, and undermines the aim which universities are – or, at least, should be – in pursuit of; the acquisition of knowledge. Should the VCs capitulate it won’t end here. Strikers, having exposed such a weak point in the university structure will exploit it again, leading to a third round of strikes, then maybe a fourth, a fifth or sixth.
How many times can grades continue to be inflated before, in real terms, they are worth no more than the paper they are written on and students will get loans not to attend university with the full assurance they will get their degrees regardless?