How Striking Lecturers Won Their Students’ Support

New tactics are working.

by Alessio Koliulis

25 March 2022

Students show their support for the UCU higher education strikes, London, December 2021. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Reuters

With staff and students coming together in the current University College and Union (UCU) strikes, it is clear that solidarity between the two groups is returning, despite years of marketisation wearing it down. 

The last decade saw the Tories raise tuition fees to exceptional levels, forcing ‘home’ students to shoulder even larger debts, while, at the same time, pushing universities to rely on increased numbers of overseas students. Meanwhile, staff have experienced bigger workloads and more precarious contracts and now face colossal pension cuts. 

Since 2018, UCU members have been fighting back against these distressing trends, organising five strikes in four years; this week’s strike action being the fifth. During this time, we have seen students’ support for the strikes strengthen and grow – despite managers’ best efforts to stir up divisions, accusing staff of disrupting students’ education with their ‘unreasonable’ demands. 

The fact that students are increasingly backing the strikes is no coincidence. As staff, we recognise how important students’ support is in achieving our demands. To that end, we have adapted our strategies, introducing new tactics and perspectives in order to build and forge bonds with students in a way that more traditional modes of organising have failed to do.  

Rethinking the picket line. 

A big part of how we have been able to win students’ support is through rethinking the traditional picket line – a tactic that has long dominated how strikes are organised.

Historically, picket lines were successful in disrupting Fordist industries and institutions – places like factories, which saw a whole workforce concentrated in one building, and with a clear chain of command. 

Today, however, a different set of tactics is required. With digital technologies radically altering the landscape of work, and with it, the university – now teaching can be done online, and across various digital platforms – it is clear that the traditional, physical picket line is no longer the most effective tactical response. 

In trying to respond to these new technological challenges, 2018 saw the introduction of ‘teach-outs’, free events open to the public, which take place on the physical picket, but are also streamed online, whereby academics share their knowledge through talks and workshops with colleagues and students. These events aim to increase students’ understanding of why such strikes take place, providing vital histories of the labour movement internationally, as well as offering analysis on the institutional, political and financial systems that structure the contemporary UK education system. 

They not only up space for much-needed conversations about how universities are changing, but also enable those who can’t be at the physical picket the opportunity to learn more about the strikes and to show solidarity with those on the ground. 

Centring care. 

Beyond this, teach-outs have also challenged the very politics of the strike, moving to centre a politics of care, which has, in turn, further strengthened the bonds between staff and students. 

Reflecting on her experience of the strikes, professor Jane Rendell notes a growing desire amongst staff to find more caring alternatives to those offered by the current system. It is no longer merely about “[standing] in refusal outside the workplace, discouraging others to enter”, she explains, but about “[drawing] attention to the often-masculine stance of the strike and the picket line [and] addressing the tensions that many academics feel when striking, that those who get hit hardest are the students, rather than the managers”. 

This emphasis on supporting those who are most vulnerable and impacted in and by the strikes has had very real implications on how we organise, with strikers expanding their list of demands to include tenured staff and those in precarious positions, on part-time, fixed-term and zero-hours contracts. It was out of this spirit that the ‘Four Fights’ campaign was born – the campaign, among other things, calls for pay equality across gender, race and disability and the elimination of precarious employment. 

This expansion of political consciousness and, with it, strikers’ demands, signals the potential for launching ‘social’ strikes – actions that do not actually involve a withdrawal of labour by salaried workers, but a more amorphous social stoppage or disruption – like the rent strikes students carried out in protest of the financialisation of student halls

This spirit has carried through to the current strikes, with the National Union of Students encouraging students to go on strike in support of their teachers with the understanding that teachers’ working conditions are their learning conditions; that ultimately victory for one group is victory for the other. 

Future fights. 

This kind of solidarity is only going to become more and more important, given the challenges that lie ahead. University labour is becoming increasingly precarious, while the surge we are seeing in the offer of ‘on-demand’ courses signals a shift towards the so-called platformisation of higher education. Hourly-paid staff are celebrated as essential workers but are increasingly contracted on an ad-hoc, casual basis. At the same time, students are paying more for condensed courses, depriving them of a deeper pedagogical experience critical to the future of our societies. 

It is therefore vital that staff and students work together to rail against these changes and demand a radical transformation of the UK’s higher education sector. In doing this, we should be taking direct action to oppose staff redundancies and pension cuts, along with demanding transparency in how data about staff and students is collected, shared and used by the university. We should also be calling for the government to cancel university fees and write off student debt. 

Ultimately, the UCU strikes have made it clear how important solidarity-building is in resisting the marketisation of our universities. Recognising that staff and students are all in this together is an essential part of this fight. 

Alessio Kolioulis is a Lecturer (Teaching) Urban Economic Development at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL. 

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