Text by Iqbal Ahmed, photography by Michael Baker and Iqbal Ahmed
Friday, 23 February was not a usual day at the campus of Durham University. The South Road, a busy thoroughfare for students to commute between classes and accommodations, was nearly empty; the library square between the Bill Bryson Library and the Geography Building held fewer students. This was the second day of the largest university staff strike in the UK.
On Thursday, 22 February teachers from more than 60 universities across the UK have begun a 14-day strike, scheduled to end on 16 March. The strike is taking place as a result of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme dispute. The USS is the largest private pension schemes for universities and higher educational institutions across the UK. The change in the current pension scheme that calls for employee contribution in favor of a proposed market-based performances has caused an uproar among teachers and strike organisers. Rather than relying on the market-driven investment performance, they want to keep the current contribution-based pension scheme. The proposed new change ‘would leave the typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement, compared with the current terms’, according to a report by Times Higher Education.
The academic staff at Durham has taken the decision to strike very seriously as teachers across multiple faculties and departments have decided to take part in the strike. The mood at the University is palpable as the strike continues — the traffic in the classrooms and corridors are less than usual; emails to faculty members are being unanswered; contact between students and lecturers are less frequent. University authorities have indicated that they respect the right of staff to take part in the strike to support their dissent against proposed changes to the USS pension scheme.
The Geography Department has signed a petition to the Vice-Chancellor asking him to take action against the proposed pension scheme. The petition, which has already collected 100 signatures, highlights the importance of the contribution of the teachers and their financial security.
Students are not quite sure what to expect as of yet. Some are supporting the strike while others are unsure of why this is happening or consider themselves mostly unaffected by it.
I sat down with Jasmine, a second-year Sports Exercise and Physical Activity student, on Level 4 of the library to discuss her thoughts on the strike. ‘I live 20 miles away from the uni and I don’t know if the classes are happening – this is really inconvenient for me’, says Jasmine. The inconvenience and uncertainly over grades, exams, and assignments are of major concerns for Jasmine. She adds that the lecturers might be taking this out on the students but they cannot always be prepared for things like this. The length of the strike adds more to her concern. ‘Fourteen days away from class is too much,’ says Jasmine. ‘Not being able to contact my lecturers, not having any lectures for such a long time really worries me’.
Jasmine suggests that the university pays back the students part of the tuition for the missing classes. In light of this unusually long strike her message may not be unreasonable. According to Change.org, at £81 per day the 14-day strike would mean that the students would be paying $1400 for the missing classes. ‘I want it back’, Jasmine firmly says.
Postgraduate research students at Durham remain active in support of the strike. Vanessa Schofield, a third-year PhD student in Geography expresses her concern about privatisation of the higher education in the UK. She argues that the strike has been ‘labelled as a strike about pensions but it’s about … the wider marketistion of higher education. Universities are being run as big businesses’.
Schofield expresses her empathy towards the teaching staff at Durham. ‘In the past few years, staff have had to take on larger class sizes and workloads following huge growth in student numbers. Many have had to take precarious contracts … and some even voluntary severance’, says Schofield. ‘Staff are trying to put a pause on this’.
Upul Kumara Wickramasinghe, a first-year, PhD student in Anthropology from Sri Lanka, highlights a spatial view of the strike. He says that it is not uncommon to assume that ‘protests are only taking place in countries like Sri Lanka, but not in [the] western developed countries like UK’. But the ongoing strike across the universities in UK has proved that assumption wrong. ‘[W]e are going through the largest ever strike called in British higher education these days’, says Wickramasinghe. ‘When Sri Lankan academics protested and called strike actions demanding their rights in particular and strengthen public education in general, it was severely criticized by the groups of pro-privatization and pro-commodification of education’. As an international student in UK, he welcomes such action in UK and wishes ‘all the success for the struggle of British progressive academics’.
It is too early to say what will come of the strike and what impact it may have on the academic commitments of the students at Durham. However, the university administrator has made it clear that it will not compromise with the learning outcomes of the students. To this end, the university has decided that students will not be assessed over the materials that have not been covered due to strike. Furthermore, the Boards of Examiners are thinking about strategies to deal with incomplete modules.
The message from the student community to the university is clear. ‘Pause and see the solidarity between students and staff’, says Schofield. ‘Take note of this collective feeling of unhappiness and re-think how we want to put ourselves out there as a ‘world leading’ university’.
For now, the strike is on. The striking staff gets a weekend off. But another week of strike begins in three days.
The schedule for the strike dates at Durham University follows:
Week one: Thursday, 22 February and Friday, 23 February
Week two: Monday, 26 February, Tuesday, 27 February, and Wednesday, 28 February
Week three: Monday, 5 March, Tuesday, 6 March, Wednesday, 7 March, and Thursday, 8 March
Week four: Monday, 12 March, Tuesday, 13 March, Wednesday, 14 March, Thursday, 15 and Friday, 16 March
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.