I wrote a column a few weeks ago, reflecting upon society’s current penchant for productivity and the way in which it has infiltrated the mindset of today’s university students. Such attitudes are symptomatic of a wider issue: the commodification of our education system and of our approaches to learning. No longer are our universities purely academic institutions, established to spark the minds of the next generation and to produce the cutting-edge research upon which societal progress has been so reliant. The sad reality is that British universities are businesses. Their pursuit of high-quality, top-of-field academic excellence has been overtaken by the need to pursue a profit, at the expense of students and staff alike.
On Monday 25 November, members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) will begin an eight-day strike. Many of those in the student body will remember the strikes which occurred in 2018. In the midst of the ‘beast from the east’, lecturers and tutors took to the picket lines to protest the proposed cuts to their pension scheme. The dispute which occurred almost two years ago has yet to be properly resolved, leading to further industrial action by members of the UCU.
But this strike is not just looking to tackle the pernicious cuts to the pension scheme. Other issues, all symptoms of the commodification of our higher education system, are firmly on the agenda. These issues include a decline in wages, an unsustainable increase in the workload of academic staff and the gender and ethnic pay gap, all of which are issues that the UCU is looking to tackle by undertaking strike action. As it stands, working conditions for university staff are appalling. A shift towards the casualisation of university staff’s contracts means many are facing a lack of job security. The desire of the university to take on an influx of students whilst not compensating by hiring more staff has seen many of our academic staff struggle under the weight of an unsustainable and unmanageable workload.
To put this in an Edinburgh context, a recent investigation conducted by The Student highlights the inadequate working conditions endured by PhD tutors, specifically those working in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The investigation underscored, among other things, the disparity between the amount tutors are paid and the sheer quantity of work they are expected to complete. For many of our lecturers, tutors and other academic staff, this is the reality of their current employment; underpaid and overworked, they are being done a disservice. And yet, it is their hard work that allows this university to function. For the fee-paying students at this university, surely our expectation is that the money we put into this institution each year should be going right to the heart of our learning experience, to those who give up time and energy to facilitate our education. This does not seem to be the case.
That is exactly why we as students must take a stance on this issue. A favourite buzzword, or rather ‘buzz phrase’, employed by our university is ‘student experience’. According to their website, the University of Edinburgh takes great care to “ensure that all of [its] students have an exceptional and distinctive experience while at university”. But what is this experience without the diligent and dedicated support of our academic staff? As it was pertinently summed up during the 2018 industrial action, “their working conditions are our learning conditions”. This is a truth that should stick in the minds of all students during the upcoming industrial action.
Before directing your frustration for missed lectures or delayed feedback at your lecturers and tutors, remember that for them, striking is a last resort. For those on strike, this is not a paid holiday. Instead, redirect that frustration to the institution as a whole and to the wider structural issues which need to be challenged. That our higher education system has become a commodity has serious ramifications for all of those involved. It impacts the wellbeing of staff and students and damages the workings of this country’s prestigious and essential higher education. So, support your striking lecturers this week. Their intentions are anything but malicious. They are fighting to protect the future of a fundamental aspect of society: a proper education.