“Students are not weapons but lecturers have no other way to save their pensions.”
This week University College Union (UCU) members began trade union action against proposed changes to the pension plan of academic staff. Action has been taken in the form of an assessment and marking boycott which was, in my opinion, unfair.
UCU has called on action from all full members employed by organisations involved in the dispute; academics at 69 institutions are taking part. The boycott covers coursework, formal marking and feedback. Universities UK, who are proposing the amendments to the pension scheme, have said they are committed to negotiations and are disappointed that UCU is pursuing action that directly impacts students.
UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt has stated UCU continues to press employers to draw back from the proposals which would have a damaging effect upon annual pensions. She states to their members “the pressure we are able to put on the employers will be determined largely by the impact of the action you take”.
I understand why this action is being taken as the proposals seem unjust. I am also a firm believer that everyone has a right to fight for what they believe in, however I do not condone this method of protest. Students, like myself, work hard and pay a lot of money to attend University in the hope of improving their future. Why should we be affected? We are innocent in this and should not be punished for it.
The first I heard of this was in a lecture. Our lecturer welcomed us in and dropped the bombshell on us that he would not mark work until further notice. We were informed that our assessment due that week would be discarded and the grade percentage split across the next two assessments, assuming this is resolved quickly and marking resumes.
I was shocked at this news; we had all worked hard for two weeks to produce high quality films and essays on them. At stages I worked into the early hours as I had clashing deadlines. I was physically and mentally drained and this news pushed me over the edge; embarrassingly, tears came to my eyes. When you put so much effort into a piece of work, one that you believe is your best to date, and find out it will never count towards your degree you go through what I can only describe as a storm of emotions including sadness, anger, disappear and anxiety.
We were all unsure of how to deal with the situation. Students were vocal about how cheated they felt to the point where it got so heated the lecturer refused to talk about it. He went on to deconstruct our films, adding insult to injury as they will never count towards our final grade however good they are.
Most academic staff do a good job at our University. Nevertheless, in my opinion, in some cases the standard of teaching has dropped. Students have to deal with recycled PowerPoint presentations and project briefs, and some lecturers being over fifteen minutes late in some cases. Lecturers also constantly neglect my Individual Learning Plan, a plan which details a students with difficulties; a failure of their duty. To have to deal with this poor tuition, find your way through work somehow and then be denied marks is so frustrating.
Tristian Smith, a Drama and Multimedia Stage Two Student, said “Ultra left wing unions and the lecturers/academics who belong to these are using us as a tool in their game. It’s immoral and downright disgusting. If they have a problem whatever it may be pensions, salary etc. campaign and actually get students on side rather than alienating them by effectively ruining their degree”
Tom Russell, A Stage Two Digital Arts student, takes a similar view, he told me “I understand the reasons behind it, and for the most part agree with the lecturers. However I what I do not agree with is how it could impact our degree. They really need to find a way to get the students on side. It’s not fair on the students, especially as we pay nine thousand pounds a year to be here”
Jess Barnes has also expressed her outrage saying “I am so glad I wasted two weeks of my life, reading thirteen books, staying awake till all hours of the night in an attempt to write the perfect essay,only to find out it will not be marked. I have lost so much respect for the University of Kent”.
I agree with these students. It is also my opinion that we are here to gain an education, which is our right, and this is now being compromised. We should not be a pawn in a chess match between the University and academic staff.
I put these points to UCU representative, Paul Hubert, who released this statement in response:
“The first thing to say is that we are not striking. What we’re doing at the moment is ‘Action Short of a Strike” in the form of an assessment in marking boycott. We may end up on strike if the employer’s response is punitive – that is to say, not paying us for any of our work because we’re boycotting part of it.”
“Members of the union decided to take action on the biggest turn out in UCU’s history and by a decisive majority. This is because the changes in the USS pension scheme the employers have been considering will have a major effect on the retirement incomes of our members. Our pay has been cut by thousands of pounds a year in real terms over the last few years. The pensions proposals would do the same to a lower retirement income. Professional actuaries commissioned by the union showed that in a minority of cases people could lose hundreds of thousands of pounds of retirement income.”
“The UCU has also taken this action because when our national negotiators got in the room with Universities UK they got the impression there was no real scope for negotiation. There are now signs of movement. If there is a real process of discussion rather than us having a bad outcome forced on us the action may be suspended and students can get their work marked.”
When you consider it from this point of view, you can appreciate the difficult position of the lecturers involved in the action. They are fighting for their future, how they are going to look after themselves in their retirement, how they will continue to support their children. If Universities UK are not negotiating, then they have no other choice but to take action. This is the only way they can make a big impact and hopefully be listened too.
When I began writing this article I was of the view that I was not in favour of these protests. Now I understand why the action is taking place. I still do not condone the method UCU and its members have chosen, but I do see there was no alternative for them. The blame here lies with Universities UK for their lack of negotiation.
Students are not weapons and they should not be used in this way, however it seems lecturers have no other way to save their pensions.