As members of the University and College Union, including myself, gear up for the upcoming wave of strikes, I find myself wondering how we should communicate to students and the wider public what we’re doing and why.
I find this a very difficult subject to broach. I love teaching and care deeply about my students. We’ve had such wonderfully productive sessions, so many fascinating ideas and critical questions.
I’m not depriving students of lessons because of anything they’ve done. I’m striking because the Universities Superannuation Scheme is making our pensions much riskier and smaller. We stand to lose £10,000 every year after retirement – an estimated £200,000 in total. This is really scary and feels unfair.
We have tried to reason with our institutions but they have not listened. So we are striking for 14 days in late February and early March, depending on the university. We are so terrified about what the cuts to our pensions might mean for our future that we are choosing to strike and to not be paid for these days. In this action we are supported by the National Union of Students.
Lecturers, administrative staff and students will be protesting outside universities, taking adversarial action to discourage anyone from entering the building. We are not rescheduling lectures or providing online learning material. However, essays and exams will still be set on these subjects and marked as usual.
It grieves us to hurt students in this way, and I understand why some are now demanding compensation for missed teaching time. But we can only motivate reform by maximising disruption. Just as women won the vote through protests, rallies and direct action, so too must we disrupt the status quo. Truth be told, the goal is to make students angry and annoyed, so that they complain, and eventually that our universities protect our pensions. Students and universities have the power to end this.
But strikes don’t just incentivise reform, they can also shift norm perceptions, our beliefs about what others think and do. If everyone goes along with the status quo, we assume collective approval, not recognising that others may be privately critical. We may become despondent and pessimistic, sceptical of wider support and doubtful that change is possible. Without hope, we too conform, we go with the flow.
We only revise our norm perceptions when we witness behavioural change – if we see widespread public critique, resistance and disruption. But obviously if everyone complies, we will not see any behavioural change. And we will be reluctant to deviate unilaterally – knowing this is individually costly and unlikely to secure success. So we follow the herd, think change impossible and sleepwalk into a neoliberal nightmare. You already know the ending to this sorry tale: our universities have become marked by grotesque precarity and inequality.
We can only overcome this collective action problem through a coordinated change in behaviour. By striking together, in unity and solidarity, sharing photos of picket lines up and down the country, we will show widespread resistance. We will realise our collective strength, and become emboldened to mobilise for further change, to protect this sector we all love and cherish.
This isn’t just about universities, it’s about inequalities more broadly, and the imperative to resist. While academic conferences and publications brilliantly analyse contemporary inequalities, we all know that evidence alone doesn’t drive policy reform. For that, we need collective action.
I write in solidarity with my colleagues and students.