Thomas Barton is a student at UCL, and is the President of UCL Conservatives.
As a final year undergraduate student at University College London, I am overwhelmingly grateful for the truly excellent teaching and support I have received from my lecturers in helping me progress through this most important year of education. It is not by accident that UCL is the seventh best university in the world, and that British universities continue to attract the brightest and the best students the world has to offer. British universities offer phenomenal teaching.
On this basis, I fully share the concerns shared by my lecturers regarding the planned changes to their pension scheme proposed by Universities UK, whereby the Universities Superannuation Scheme will change from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme. The University College Union (UCU) estimates that a typical lecturer will lose around £10,000 a year as a result of these changes.
If Britain is to seize the opportunities provided by Brexit to become a truly global Britain, then we must ensure that our universities continue to deliver the best higher education in the world, and that means we must retain our excellent lecturers. But my support for my lecturers is entirely compatible with my opposition to the strike action many of them have decided to participate in. Sadly, action and intention cannot be so easily separated, and the strike action led by UCU is directly hurting students.
Being in my final year of university, I am particularly concerned by the loss of teaching time I have had to incur as a direct result of strike action. As a historian, I do not receive many contact hours teaching time, but even I have lost over half of my contact hours for this half of term. Worse still, to maximise damage the UCU is prohibiting striking lecturers from teaching the academic material lost on a strike day, on an alternative non-strike day.
To add to this nonsensical situation, the exam papers for this summer have already been written. This means that students will have the rather unpleasant experience of being confronted with an exam paper this summer which will include questions on topics which have not been academically taught. This restricts the number of questions one can answer in the exam, thereby making the exam process even more difficult and stressful.
As if this is not already sufficient cause for concern, activists in support of the strike have also imposed a picket line, which they populate en masse to actively dissuade students from using library and other university facilities. Students are therefore being discouraged by their peers and lecturers from using the facilities we pay for to catch up on the class hours that have been sacrificed on the altar of leftist activism.
Both others and I have in some cases experienced quite intimidating behaviour when crossing picket lines. It is a deeply unpleasant experience to have to pass through a group of angry activists obstructing the doors to university facilities while they hurl false accusations of betrayal and demands of expressing ‘solidarity’. I cannot help but feel as though some students supporting the strike regard themselves as the Dantons or Robespierres of a revolutionary movement, which is so symptomatic of the left-wing hysteria flooding university campuses today. It is deeply ironic that some activists stood outside the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a Department that teaches history classes on the Soviet Union and politics classes on Putin’s Russia, are engaging in intimidating behaviour.
Activists have adopted an oversimplified, binary approach to the situation, indulging in a “with us or against us” attitude and guilt-tripping final year students, already suffering from lost contact hours, as somehow actively seeking to work against their lecturers by entering the library. I personally had to explain to a group of picketers blocking the doors that I was entering my Department on a strike day because my lecturer was still giving his class. While I fully support the right to strike and the right not to cross a picket line, I also wholeheartedly support the right not to strike, and activists should join me in doing so.
In short, strike action always ends up hurting innocents the most, in this case the students of over 60 UK Universities. Students are being used as bargaining chips, or even as hostages, in a negotiation over pension reform that simply has nothing to do with us.
I welcome Sam Gyimah’s remarks stating that striking lecturers’ forfeited pay should be given back to students. Students are consumers, paying as much as £9,250 annually to receive a university education. Where are the Corbynistas who were once so vocal in their opposition to tuition fees? They are on the picket lines, in open support of strike action which withholds the service students expect in return for the huge personal financial sacrifices they have had to make to attend university.
While some left-wing students are engaging in open hypocrisy, it is nonetheless encouraging that over 90,000 students have signed petitions demanding financial compensation for the loss of teaching time. It speaks volumes that the silent majority continues to cross the picket line- the library in which I am writing this article on a strike day has not a single free seat in sight.
I reiterate my support for my lecturers, who undoubtedly make a positive contribution to society. But it does not extend to backing strike action which does nothing other than punish innocent students. There are better, more effective ways of making a case – through negotiation, online petitioning, or participating in peaceful protest marches. I certainly do not have the solutions to dealing with complex pension reforms whereby Universities UK need to address a whopping £6 billion deficit in their pension scheme. But I do know that hurting students leaves everyone worse off.