Striking Action

The end of February carries the potential for us to see one of the largest academic staffstrikes in UK history. Ostensibly this is a row about pay and pensions, and I certainly agree that this is a factor. However, in conversation with one of my lecturers, I now believe that this disagreement is merely a catalyst – the straw that broke the back of the proverbial camel.

Straw that broke the camel's back
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University: the term itself implies the universe, the unending. Learning is a lifelong skill, and surely universities should be a place for students to grow as they learn, rather than simply being (possibly poorly) prepared for a rapidly changing workplace. Universities should be a place for immersion in a space and state (of mind, as well as matter).
Personally, I have been contemplating whether universities in the UK should offer a different type of degree: it’s all very well specialising, but as we go through the education system our range of academic focus narrows and narrows, rather than expanding as our intellect grows alongside. I understand, we need specialists, but I would love a course which offers an expanded curriculum, like universities of old, wherein students learn from disciplines across the spectrum; developing learning, curiosity, and intellectual rigour as we grow. But that’s just my personal gripe!

Academic teaching staff are held in a model of precarisation, a gig economy for the education system – those lucky enough to hold permanent positions have faced a pay freeze for nearly a decade, even as student tuition fees have risen; administrative staff numbers have increased tenfold, and higher management members have seen salaries and bonuses rise exponentially. This is not unique to universities; across business we see the same pattern repeated, and the recent Carillion debacle provides stark warning for this kind of business structure.
But, universities are not a business! Running them as such, with the students as either clients or products, aligns a place for learning with a place for monetary gain; the logic of financial commercialism applied to lived experience - practice priced. Students have been branded: the university degree acts as the service-style status quo, providing assurance (or insurance) of what? A longer time spent, or more money invested, in to the quotidian expectation of an education level.

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I forget who said it, but, at risk of muddling up the quote; “the greatest threat is an educated populace.” Well, anyone who suggested halting education would be pilloried, so, instead, education has become merely about passing exams, reaching quotas and filling in tick boxes. This facsimile of learning has been tied so firmly into the hierarchical structures already at play that all ability, or desire to question is quashed. We are filled with noise, surrounded by it, so that we might not be able to find the interiority and integrity to query ourselves, and by extension, what we are given as a society. If we don’t know who we are, how will we ever know what we stand for?
Another personal peeve: Degrees once provided the more academically minded with a slight edge on a job market. But now everyone has a degree, so where’s the edge? When applying for work a few years ago I felt as though I was being stigmatised because I didn’t have those magic letters on my CV. Even though my qualification was the same level as a BA, the lack of the required designation barred my entry. If BA’s have now become an absolute requirement for getting a toe onto the job ladder, then surely this level of education should be free? If they are not needed, then employers need to stop putting it as an essential attribute on adverts.  

Paris: 1960
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Anyhow; the strike. This is a moment of rupture; interesting that, if the four weeks of strikes go ahead as planned, the final weeks will coincide with the Paris evenements. Portentous? Maybe. The strike, as an action, is a final resort when all other avenues have been explored and exhausted, and many staff are hoping it won’t need to happen – they love what they do, but feel as though they are not being valued, listened to, or supported. They are also wary of hope, knowing that their bargaining capital is comparatively low (compared to, say, strike action on trains or the tube), and that the ones who will suffer the most from their actions are those they wish to help.

Yet they play at disruption; theatricalising their fears, and their hopes. And I support them. We are held in a system with the appearance of connection, of agency, of freedom, yet many of our apparent choices are preordained, and our connectivity is based more on computers than conversation. To take to the streets, to perform a communal physical action with the aim of betterment, with the hope of change, and with the refusal to give in to to cultures of fear… well, it’s striking.

See you at the picket lines!


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