Students occupy the administration building at Aberdeen University.
On Tuesday morning, the Vice Principal of the University of Aberdeen sent out an email to the entire student body. In it, he cheerfully announced that, following an ACAS-facilitated proposal to settle the ongoing dispute over cutting University staff’s pensions, he ‘expect[s] the current industrial action to be suspended from […] Wednesday, 14 March 2018’. The VP furthermore assured students that the university management ‘remain[s] committed to minimising the adverse impact of the dispute’ and ‘thank[s] all students for their forbearance over this challenging period’.
Most astounding about this statement was that it was sent out hours before the Aberdeen branch of the UCU union – let alone UCU as a whole – had made a decision on the proposed deal. This means that either the university management was uninformed about UCU’s widely publicised decision timeline or it sent out an intentionally misleading email to the entirety of its student body. Both these explanations are utterly shameful for representatives of one of the oldest higher education institutions in the world.
Intentionally or not, the email caused instant university-wide confusion when news broke about UCU’s nation-wide rejection of the deal. Statements like ‘But this morning they said the strike was over!’ and ‘Why can’t the lecturers make up their mind?’ were spread by bewildered students on campus, Facebook and Twitter.
Yet, instead of correcting its ill-informed communication from earlier that day, the university management continued what, at this point, must be called a misinformation campaign. In a second email to all students, the Vice Principal expressed his ‘disappointment’ about the rejection of the deal, while claiming that ‘[t]he University remains strongly committed to ensuring that the student experience is of the highest quality and every effort is being made to minimise the disruption caused by the strike action’.
The subtext of the university’s communication strategy is clear: management is caring for its students, while supposedly ‘selfish’ lecturers continue to disrupt our education. This gross misrepresentation of striking staff members’ motivations must be read as an attempt by the university management to drive a wedge between the very two groups it is supposed to serve.
Despite such executive level games of ‘divide-and-conquer’, the past four weeks of industrial action have shown that students increasingly recognise the natural alliance between themselves and their lecturers. In Aberdeen and elsewhere, students understand that when university staff withhold their labour to stop proposed cuts to their pensions, they simultaneously take a stance against obscene corporate practices such as fixed-term contracts, compulsory staff redundancies and the never-ending increase of already extortionate tuition fees.
Thus, students continue to join the picket lines, raise money for local strike funds and take other direct action in solidarity with university staff. At the time of writing, this includes six student-led occupations on Scottish university campuses alone – with dozens more happening across the UK.
Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, university managements’ responses to students’ peaceful solidarity protests have been aggressive and demeaning. At the University of Aberdeen, the Head of Estates was videotaped physically assaulting numerous students, including rugby-tackling a group of protesters and forcefully manhandling a female student. At the University of the Arts London, the local student union's Campaigns Officer has had her access to University buildings blocked, in addition to being threatened with dismissal from her elected post. At the University of Bath, student occupiers were denied access to bathrooms, leaving them no choice but to urinate in bottles in the middle of their University building.
Instances like these make clear how university managements only care about the welfare of students so as long as they do not attempt to challenge their authority. Instances like these are in fact symptomatic of the frightening reality of our increasingly commercialised higher education system. They show what happens when universities are run in the interest of unelected, unaccountable and overpaid managers instead of students and staff members who know that universities are not businesses.
To quote the Reclaiming Our University initiative’s manifesto: ‘We are motivated in our scholarship not by incentives of financial gain but by the pride we take in our educational and scholarly work. […] Our ambition for the university is not that it should be ranked above others in terms of quantitative indices of performance or productivity, but that it should stand out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.’
Yet, for this vision to be realised, it is of utmost importance to see through the tricks of the university management’s communication strategy and to stand united as an academic community. We must stop letting universities cut our hard-working staff’s pensions and take a stance against the rebranding of students as customers.
Supporting the UCU strike now means defending both our academic values and our education of tomorrow.