Two institutions, one strike, but where is the Union?

By David Huw Ricketts

These past weeks have brought us four newly elected FXU presidents and the start of the UCU’s industrial action over changes to pensions. Both of these inherently political issues have brought with them a plethora of differing opinions as all contentious political situations do. Opinions that have seen the creation of petitions, and letters in support of the strike, with students asking for reimbursement of their tuition fees, and statements of sympathy released by the FXU. However, I feel these actions whilst mostly well-founded miss a crucial point, a point that one must rewind eight years to see.

In 2010, as I am sure we as students are all aware, a Conservative-led coalition put forward the motion to increase our tuition fees furthering the marketisation of British higher education. At the time I was not a university student but had many friends attending university, so through intrigue rather than solidarity, I attended a protest in London against the introduction of those fees, blissfully ignorant to the fact that one day I would be paying the very fees I was marching against.

Photo credit: Jordina Sala Branchadell

The one thing that has stayed with me from that day is that it was not only students on the march, as I thought it would be, and constituted one of my first encounters with the notion of political solidarity in this context.

Among the crowd, I met countless university lecturers many of which I am sure will be striking over the coming weeks. These university lecturers marched in solidarity with students in support of their cause, it is this memory for me that exemplifies how much lecturers care for the wellbeing of their students. This is what should be at the forefront of all our minds when deliberating on why this industrial action has been undertaken. No lecturer has made the decision to strike lightly and it brings with it a significant financial detriment. However, a more poignant reason to support this strike is that it has so many parallels with the underlying issues raised during the protests in 2010. It is the reengagement of an agenda aimed at hollowing out UK higher education through the marketisation and the ever-dogmatic enforcement of neoliberal policies. These strikes represent a litmus test for the supporters and enforcers of these neoliberal agendas and anything short of absolute solidarity with our lecturer’s risks emboldening an agenda that is both detrimental to students and higher education.

Photo Credit: Jordina Sala Branchadell

So, for me, the FXU statement showing sympathy for the lecturers but falling short of full support, fails to represent the actual views of students. Rather, it seems an attempt to act as an arbitrator as opposed to a union, which I believe has two possible consequences; it damages its very reputation as a union and subsequently closes a debate that we as students have a right to have over this issue. By choosing to only engage in the parameters of the debate set by the University, FXU finds itself taking an ideological position against the strike; a position hidden behind words of sympathy, delivered through a thinly veiled plea for both sides to return to the negotiating table.

Whilst I welcome the most recent attempt to open the debate to students about the industrial action which had to be canceled due to the adverse weather and hope will be re-scheduled. It seems to me that the opinion of the FXU’s members are an afterthought due to leadership attempting to hold debate after releasing a statement in support of the university.

If the FXU wishes to be called a union and more importantly be seen as then it must allow us as students to define the parameters of the discussions and debates before such statements are made. I am fully aware that not all students will be in support of the strike however by closing down the debate and by appearing to take a side, the FXU leadership have inadvertently sided with the university without our consultation.

I cannot stress enough that this industrial strike is about more than pensions, it is part of an ongoing debate of what higher education should look like in the 21st century. It draws a line in the sand. We can stand by and allow the continuation of an agenda that has brought us our £9000 fees and will bring a subsequent rise this September. Or we can use this industrial action to show that as a student body we are capable of having a robust debate, being proud of the ideological stance that it brings with it; because on binary issues like this, the absence of an ideological stance from our union opens us up to the continuation of a seemingly neoliberal agenda, which has proven to be exceptionally detrimental to both students and higher education as a whole.

Photo credit: Jordina Sala Branchadell