A letter to my students about the UCU strike


Dear students,

For some time now I have been mulling over what to say about the upcoming strike by the University and College Union.  I know it must be frustrating for you, to have your education disrupted like this.  I know that some employers have chosen to cast this as a selfish act by staff more interested in defending their pensions than in teaching their students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  

To understand why, you need to know that what is at stake here is not really pensions.  What is at stake is the public university itself.  

When tuition fees were introduced a number of years ago, faculty across the nation raised their voices in loud dissent.  We joined our students to march in the streets, day after day, facing down lines of aggressive police.  We did it because, like our students, we fundamentally rejected what fees do.  They commoditize education, they render students as consumers and put them at financial risk.  They individualize and atomize, and they break down the solidarities that underpin the university as a public good - as a commons. 

The present crisis is just the latest wave of the same broad attack on the public university.  First it was fees, now it's pensions.  The privatization of pensions places lecturers at financial risk, and severs the social contract we have with the public.  You see, we lecturers are public sector workers, and we are paid as such.  Most of us could earn double or triple in the private sector, but we choose to take low salaries because we believe in our jobs, we believe in our students, and we believe in the value of public education.  It is a moral decision.  The social contract we have with the public is that in return for this service we will get stable retirement.  We will never be rich - quite unlike the management bosses who take home salaries in excess of £300,000 a year - but we can rely on a modicum of decency in old age.  It is part of our collective commons.  

Now that is being severed.  First with students, now with lecturers, our commons are being enclosed and we too are being made into objects of financialization and risk.  

As I see it, we are in this battle together.  Just as we stood with your predecessors to fight the imposition of fees, we now ask you to stand with us to fight this latest attack on the public university.  But we should not simply be defensive about this.  On the contrary, we should seize the offensive.  Instead of just demanding that they leave the pension system alone, we should demand that they abolish tuition fees too.  Let us bring that battle back.  Let us make it clear that we see these struggles as connected.  Let us demand the full restoration of the public university, and reclaim our commons. 

The truth is that you students have much more power than staff do.  The administration doesn't care if we strike.  They only care if students get upset.  And get upset you should!  There are many things you can do.  You can join the picket lines.  You can write to the members of the Senior Management Team to express your opinions.  You can demand a refund of your tuition, leveraging the logic of fees against those who have imposed them.  And - possibly best of all - you can get your parents to phone the administration.  There are many other tactics I'm sure you'll come up with yourselves.  New student movements across the world - from Chile to South Africa - have recently staged successful campaigns for public education.  We can join them - and we can learn from their tactics.  

I am reminded of that quote I shared with you from Angela Davis at the beginning of the term.  "You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time."  After all, power has never ceded anything without a demand.  If we want to reclaim the public university, we'll have to fight for it.  Together.

In solidarity,