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Student Thoughts on Strike Action

Last week Impact conducted an anonymous survey into student opinion on the second wave of University and College Union (UCU) strike action in the 2019/20 academic year. The strikes come as part of an on-going dispute regarding pay cuts, gender/ethnicity pay gaps, increased pension costs and deteriorating working conditions, as well as overwhelming concerns about casualisation within higher education institutions.

The survey link was proliferated via social media through Impact, society pages, course group chats and the Nottsfessionals page on Facebook. There was an overwhelming response on behalf of students and we closed the survey with 101 respondents. The survey found that 90% of students understood why staff members are striking, 6% were unsure, and 4% did not understand. This result may demonstrate how staff members have communicated effectively with students in light of the strike action.

Furthermore, the survey found that 66% of students support staff members’ decision to strike, 22% disagree with the action and 12% are not sure. This result shows the majority of students to be in support of the strikes. One student commented, ‘I believe they have the right to stand up for themselves and that we all deserve to be treated fairly.’ Many students also showed a concern for whether staff have been treated fairly by higher management, with one noting that ‘their teaching conditions = our learning conditions, and they’re not good enough.’

Additionally, many students extended the critique of staff being treated unfairly to a commentary upon the wider marketisation of education: ‘I disagree with the increasing marketisation of universities and the commodification of education as a service, in which universities spend huge amounts of money on making their campuses look appealing rather than pay staff fairer wages or remove fixed term/zero-hour contracts, thereby risking a decreased quality of education for students.’

“‘I’m an ethnic minority who’s the first generation in the family to go to uni, and from a low-income single-parent family. This is my opportunity to get a higher education for a brighter future and it’s being taken away from me.’”

‘The struggle of HE staff represents an intersection of all parts of society. In particular, the fight against casualisation is something extremely pertinent for young people who are increasingly less likely to find secure contracts and decent rights in the workplace.’

Equally, student frustration was apparent in comments like, ‘it seems like it’s the students that are suffering the most from the strike action’ and ‘I’m apprehensive. I’m an ethnic minority who’s the first generation in the family to go to uni, and from a low-income single-parent family. This is my opportunity to get a higher education for a brighter future and it’s being taken away from me.’

Next Impact asked students how the strike action had affected their studies. Many students expressed that the action had caused a disruption that not only affected their studies but also their wellbeing and motivation. ‘I have missed almost two weeks worth of teaching time and this is beginning to significantly impact upon my ability to complete assessments’, one noted. ‘I study English and chose certain modules because of my interest in the novels on them. Many of the sessions covering such texts have had to be cancelled due to the strikes and it has affected my engagement, motivation, and interest in my studies.’

‘I study modern languages and in a full week of strikes, my timetable is reduced to 3 hours (from 14). It’s bad for mental health, too, due to it ruining routine and social opportunities, plus it will obviously affect my grades negatively.’

‘I have missed weeks of content both in the form of lectures and seminars’, another shared, ‘so I have felt extremely under-prepared for a presentation I have just done and my later assessments.’

On the other hand, some students expressed a belief that the disruption to their education would be worth it long term. ‘It means less contact time with striking staff. But hopefully will improve the University in the long run.’ Another noted that ‘it has hardly affected my studies (only had a few lectures cancelled) but if the strike means that future generations will continue to get teaching at the level I am currently, it doesn’t matter to me.’

Furthermore, there was marked concern about crossing the picket line, suggesting that students truly do care for the reasons behind which staff are striking. Specifically, ‘I miss a few classes, I’m slightly anxious to go on campus because I do support the strike but also me failing isn’t going to help my lecturers’ and, ‘I cannot go into uni as I don’t want to cross a picket line.’

“Students aligned their priority with the prevention of future strikes, stressing it was a ‘no-brainer’ as meeting the UCU demands would stop further disruption.”

Finally, Impact asked students if they believed the university’s management should commit to fulfilling the demands of the UCU. Overwhelmingly, 88% of students said yes, whilst 7% said no and 5% revealed that they were unsure. Many stood in firm solidarity with the needs of striking staff, commenting on how ‘the lecturers at Nottingham are great and deserve to have a good working environment’, as well how ‘as an employer it is [the university’s] duty to fairly treat their workers’. Other students aligned their priority with the prevention of future strikes, stressing it was a ‘no-brainer’ as meeting the UCU demands would stop further disruption.

Additionally, many students saw a settlement on the demands as integral to social justice: ‘I can’t believe it’s 2020 and we’re still arguing over equal pay. Equal work deserves equal pay regardless of race or gender. Everyone deserves the right to have a living wage and good working conditions.’

‘My tutors, from the American Canadian Studies department, have done so much for me during my time at university. How can a university that teaches modules on ethnic and gender equality, a prestigious university no less, tolerate inequality?’

‘The university is being run more and more like a business which means outsourcing. My education is being worsened to save costs.'”

Further to this, many students expressed fear about whether the quality of education is being protected; ‘I’m paying £9k a year and it’s absurd they can’t fund lecturers with that money’, one said. ‘The university is being run more and more like a business which means outsourcing. My education is being worsened to save costs’.

The survey offered a fascinating, albeit sobering, insight into the thoughts of University of Nottingham students on the UCU strike action. The overwhelming uptake of the survey suggested a genuine level of interest and concern from students, and revealed some disparity in both knowledge about and reaction to the strike action. Whilst it would seem that a majority of students stand in support staff members’ decision, many still expressed their concerns regarding lost teaching time and a preference for no further strike action being taken. Look out for more of Impact‘s coverage of the strike action in coming weeks.

Ellie Stainforth-Mallison 

Featured image courtesy of Notts University Workers via Facebook

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