By Oliver Jervis
Students come to the university to study and staff come to earn a living. Essentially, this is how every academic institution operates. This system involves a contract that is easy to recognize, but seemingly difficult to maintain: students will attend these monoliths of education with the deserved expectation that they will receive a high-quality education, in exchange for the tuition they provide. On the other hand, academics and staff will come to work, provide such work, and expect a just reward for their daily efforts.
However, something is obviously broken in this system. Recently, the UCU announced a historic vote in favor of a UK-wide strike. Two separate ballot papers were presented to union members, one on wages and working conditions, and the other on pension cuts. Both have passed the 80% mark, and now we can see all the universities on these islands come to a desperate and frustrating halt.
Unfortunately, this action does not surprise the most experienced students at Durham University. How many times have we witnessed such strikes in recent years? Those now older fourth years among us will surely be the most discouraged by this news. During the 2019-2020 academic year, they had to endure prolonged strikes for large swaths of that time. Considered alongside the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, their first year in the amphitheater was left in tatters.
Finally, came the 2021-22 academic year accompanied by its endless controversies. The UCU’s “four fights” led to a December marked by strikes. “Wage inequality, job insecurity, increased workloads and wage devaluation” were the pillars of injustice the union wanted the university to finally address.
At that time, I remember being present at an emergency assembly declared by our own League. Frustrations were expressed by undergraduates, but the overwhelming consensus was in favor of the strike. Thus, we have supported our staff. It was an ethical decision, and it is so today.
Short strike action (ASOS) and actual strike action persisted through both Epiphany and Easter. A tagging boycott was also threatened, which risked affecting the future of seemingly countless graduate students.
Again today we found ourselves in the same position as before. Agreements have been reached in the past, but it is obvious that they are insufficient to meet the simple demands of the UCU. For example, some issues are obviously not resolved, as reported by the Palatinate. Occasional substandard contracts are still considered acceptable by several faculty departments, while late payments are commonplace for postgraduate scholars who should instead be seen as the backbone of our declining university.
It can be said that this is due to the excessive demands of a union determined to obtain an absurdly unjustified agreement for its members. I mean, why should they deny legitimate, paying students their right to a well-deserved education? Moreover, in what world do they have the right to a secure employment contract, or even a well-paid job? All this strike action is pure nonsense, isn’t it?
A fact that often passes without proper publicity may shed some light on this problem: the UK university sector received a record income of £41.1 billion in 2021. To further rub the proverbial wounds of staff on campus, the vice-chancellors of these institutions collectively received £45 million. No wonder there are so many Teslas flying around the busy streets of Durham these days.
Now, with that in mind, put yourself in the shoes of our staff. For years, their employment rights and privileges have been the poor of a monstrous nibble by the university hierarchy. Nevertheless, the workload has not dropped one bit. On the contrary, it has increased along with the number of students. It is – without digging too deep into their situation (without pomp) – a dire situation in which to exist.
So while it may be painful to once again miss the opportunity for a lecture or tutorial, the academic struggles we are forced to endure do not go unnoticed by strikers. It is, for all, a necessary evil and must be supported if the university is to understand the glaring and real consequences of its own negligence.
Image: Thomas Tomlinson