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The Strike Debate

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The hot topic on campus and across many universities right now is the proposed strike action by the UCU (University and Colleges Union). The union has voted to take action in response to the proposed changes to the USS (University Superannuation Scheme) pension scheme. If action goes ahead, proposed strikes will affect 61 universities across the country, including York. For York students, this will mean disruption between weeks 7-10. York Union and Nouse co hosted an event last night (19.02.18) with the motion ‘This House believes students should support the upcoming University and College Union strike.’ 

Alterations to pension schemes may lead to a reduction of £10,000 per year in current USS pensions. The UCU is the biggest teaching union for Universities and Colleges and the changes would affect many people who have worked hard in the realm of academia, for a significant amount of time. If these changes go ahead, there are fears that the average lecturer could lose around £200,000 over the course of their retirement. If the strike goes ahead, it will mean cancellations of lectures, seminars, tutorials and a longer wait for assessment feedback. Evidently, this will cause maximum destruction to students, and especially those who are in their final year at university.

The supporting side of the panel for this debate claimed that students should stand alongside their lecturers in support of the strike. The current pension scheme is flawed, and academics should not be punished for their handwork and dedication. Academics do not want to strike as they enjoy teaching and passing their knowledge onto students. York University, as of last year, made a £300 billion profit which begs the question, why can’t this money be used elsewhere? However, this strike is not just about now, it is about the future. This strike is more than just about pensions, but the future of higher education. Universities are now vastly becoming a business, students and academics are now consumers. Thus, education is now a competitive, profit making organisation – but proposals to this new pension scheme have the potential to damage this public service long term.

The opposition for this debate’s main line of defence was that this strike did not consider the students. They claimed that striking was unfair as throughout the process, students had not been asked. The opposition claimed that student’s would be the only one’s to suffer if the strike goes ahead. Students stuck in the middle of this strike are simply, ‘no more than political pawns.’ Frankly, this misses the point. The pension strike is not only for the lecturers, it is for the future of higher education. These pension cuts will affect students, if it goes ahead, York’s best academics will begin to leave the UK to go to other university’s across the globe that have far better pension schemes. It is all well and good to complain about missing three weeks of university tuition, but that is a self centered short term worry. If students do not support now, it will affect the future generations and future of higher education in this country, when it is already in decline.

Opposition also claimed that the student body was weak and vulnerable in supporting the strike. If students supported the strike, they were not standing up for their individual, educational rights. They also denied that the strike is political, and supporters should stop making it so. However, students and academics alike are part of a communal academic community, we are not as polarised as we are made out to be. Standing in solidarity with lectures who wish to strike is not being a weak student, but defending fundamental rights to a well deserved academic’s pension, and the future of higher education in this country.

Many students are annoyed, and that is completely valid as tuition fees are at an all time high and it is a significant chunk of contact hours to not receive, considering the payment. Students from all over the country are demanding a refund of some sort. Student at York, Conrad Whitcroft White recently launched a petition demanding a £300 refund to every student missing tuition. That has since reached 2,500 signatures. In speaking to him, Conrad argues that students are paying for a full time education and it it is wrong that we will be paying for time missed. York has said that lecturers and seminars will be ‘cancelled’ instead of rescheduled which prompted him to start the petition, as there is no plan to give students educational compensation and thus, a monetary refund should be on the cards. Conrad has emphasised that his petition was not in any means, an anti-strike petition. He is in full support of the strikes but a plea for students to receive the compensation they deserve as consumers of an educational public service.

It is easy for students to resent this proposed action and be angry – in the monetary sense, the feelings are justified. We will be paying for a service we will not receive. However, students should not be angry at the strike itself. Lecturers are not taking this likely – the scale of this disruption is not something they would knowingly love to create. To strike would be not be just about changes to individual pensions but in defence of the future of higher education in the UK, which is already rapidly crumbling. Due to changes in such pensions, many lecturers will have to work for longer whilst cutting into their well deserved, retirement years. In the long term, three weeks out of ninety will not make a drastic impact on a student three year long degree. Yes, it is annoying, and it is unfair. But life is unfair.

The York Union debate was attended by 126 students, and some lecturers. The outcome of the motion was 66 in favour, 29 against and 11 abstentions. It is clear that the strike is not a clear cut issue, but something in which the student body is heavily divided against. In the coming weeks the full extent of the strike actions will unfold, until then, we can only wait.