Commentary: Lecturers’ Right to Strike and Students’ Compensation Demand

Today is marking the first day of lecturers’ strike action in several universities in the UK, including mine. I received some emails from my lecturer earlier this week to confirm their participation on the strike action upon their grievance related to their changing pension scheme. You can see the updates of today’s rally and picket lines HERE.

I was informed from one of my lecturer’s email on this matter. Here is his explanation:

USS (ed: read more about USS HERE) is a pension fund set up to provide a decent retirement for staff. Now our pensions are under attack.  Employers want to end guaranteed pension benefits so our final pensions would depend on how the stock market perform. That means huge uncertainty and a reduced retirement income for all. A typical lecturer will lose £10,000 a year in retirement. Our union has repeatedly tried to negotiate with employers to no avail. So now we have no choice but to strike. 88% of UCU (ed: read more about UCU HERE) members voting supported for this strike in a legal ballot.”

I was personally surprised to see how strong is this action as it involved 88% of the union members. As far as I know, the renewed Trade Union Act (2016) which seems to ‘weaken’ the power of union by setting a 50% threshold and 40% support from its members for a strike to be happened. I also observed some online discussion and found a comment in a financial times article (read HERE):

“Last year in our department, a grand total of 1 person out of 25 in the union (and 37 in the department) heeded the call to strike. This year 23 are intending to. Not only is that more than half the department, but it is also the half that are more teaching focused. On one module I am currently teaching for example, the entire second half of the module is going to be missing.”

I personally fully respect this action as it is indeed a fundamental right, as long as lawful and align with the industrial relations guideline. However, if there is nothing happened (negotiation or etc.), the strike will continue in these days: Feb 22nd, 23rd, 26th, 27th, and 28th also March 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 12th, 13th , 14th, 15th,  and 16th (total of 14 days in 4 weeks).

Nevertheless, not all lecturers and staffs are in favor of this strike action. It seems that not all lecturers in the UK is eligible for the USS pension scheme. A lecturer from the University of Sussex, for instance, shared my Facebook post related to this issue with comments:

Whilst I feel guilty walking past the picket line this morning, I will not be eligible to draw any pension for at least another thirty years. Meanwhile academia seems pretty determined to deny me a permanent job, and I have kids to feed. I also don’t want to let my students down, and have sent emails confirming that my seminars will be running as normal. I don’t know whether they will be pleased or will chant “Scab!” at me when I walk in.”

1 out of 4 courses’ lecturer of mine in this semester declared that he would not join this strike action. This lecturer once said that he’s respecting the action, but didn’t want our classes to be missed as he thought that his job is to ‘serve’ the students.

Illustration: Classroom (personal collection)

On this stance, I basically try to respect both lecturers who join strikes and who keep ‘doing his job’ whatever the reasons are. Yet, I thought I would only experience 3 days’ strike action by my lecturers in last semester (previously was about redundancy). Yet, now is even longer (and I might say, worse) than before. Although am studying with a scholarship, I could imagine how it feels to pay a lot for an education in the UK (esp. for international students) and lost 3 weeks of classes and opportunities to have a proper interaction with the dissertation supervisor. In my degree, for example, UK and EU students pay 9000 pounds while the international students pay 18000 pounds for a year master degree. This my vary, based on the courses and universities. No wonder that compensation call is amplified by lots of students (read more HERE)

In my university, an online petition for students’ compensation via change.org was circulated and gained more than 5,8K signs (and counting) from the students (see HERE). The online petition was firstly created by a student named Melis Royer, which later she sent a message to thank the supporters with a statement, “You wouldn’t pay for a meal you didn’t eat so why should students pay for 3 weeks of teaching we didn’t receive?”. It is worth noting that this students’ demand was not a form of not supporting / respecting the strike action, but more on a sense of balance transaction in economic process: you pay what you get.

I am personally not sure if the universities would be willing to give the compensation (refund) to the students for losing some classes, as ‘business might be in trouble’ if they spent lots of money to refund the students. Although, the university is not paying the lecturers’ whilst striking. Thus, if the university is not paying the lecturers but also not refunding the students’ fee, I don’t think it’s fair enough.

The universities are in pressures from both the lecturers and the students. I have no idea what might be the decision of the universities: the students’ demand/pressure might be used by the universities to ‘blame’ the lecturers, but can also be used by the lecturers to strengthen their position (to press the universities for making a ‘desirable’ decision so they get back to work’. The basic ideas of strike, which are to create a disruption in the system and to raise ‘public’ awareness seems achieved so far. Yet, I wonder if this action would also drive to ‘desirable’ decision and situation for both parties; and wonder what would happen next if the ‘desirable’ decision was not made by the universities.

@yosea_kurnianto

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