Occupy: Students stand in solidarity with teachers

United Kingdom
Education

Among the many students occupying the entrance to the Provost’s office at the University College London (UCL) is Justine Canady, a History undergraduate and the UCL Women’s Officer. The occupier’s demands are simple, for President and Provost Michael Arthur to stand in opposition to teachers’ pension cuts and support striking staff.

The proposed reductions will result in lecturer’s pensions being decreased by up to £10,000 (USD$13,875) a year. As a result, lecturers at more than 60 UK universities are taking part in intermittent industrial action which began 22 February and will escalate up to 16 March. The UCL student occupation began on the evening of 26 February and is in direct support of the University and Collage Union (UCU) strikes. I spoke to Justine about the reasons for the occupation and why she thinks it is important, as a student, to stand in solidarity with the workers at UCL.

Why are you taking part in the occupation?

We decided to occupy this space, at this time, to draw attention to and put pressure on the Universities UK negotiations happening on the 27th of February and publicly show that there was student support. We also wanted to put pressure on the university and encourage more student activists to get involved.

We decided to take direct action because this is the way you are going to win stuff like this. We know that lobbying isn’t working, university staff are taking part in 14 days of industrial action; that’s their form of direct action and students can do other stuff.

I think it’s nice that lots of students are signing petitions. I think that comes from a really meaningful place, but if we really want to oppose these pension changes we need to be doing more than that. That’s occupations, that’s sit-ins, that’s what we need students across the country to be doing because asking nicely isn’t going to help.

Also, student worker solidarity is something that we need to be building. Particularly as Women’s Officer I regularly get asked ‘why are you getting involved in workers’ issues, is that really about women?’ But it is a feminist issue. With the UCU stuff specifically, because of the gender pay gap, when the changes go through, women will have less access to money, even more so. A lot of the women taking part in the UCU strikes don’t even qualify for the pension scheme because they don’t earn enough, but they are still taking part which is a pretty amazing sign of solidarity.

If we want to change our education system this is how we are going to do it. I am a free education campaigner and I do a lot of stuff around marketization, we are always talking about building these links with our cleaners, with our lecturers. The things that screw them over, screw us over. Particularly with higher education reforms that were passed by the Tories last year, we are seeing a wave of marketization and cuts happening, and these pension changes are just one form of it.

For example, we do a lot of campaigning for funding of mental health services at UCL, they don’t fund these essential services properly, but they pay the provosts and managers really well and continue to build multimillion pound buildings. They want to attract more students and make the university look really cool on the outside without actually supporting their students and staff.

What is the impact of the pension cuts on the quality your education?

Having a casualized workforce is obviously going to result in crappy teaching. You have the Teaching Excellence Framework that the Tories passed in which they talk about excellence in teaching and getting value for money. However, if you don’t pay staff properly and you don’t let them retire on time obviously you are not going to have excellence in teaching. There is no logic to what is happening here.

What message do you think that the UCU strike sends?

Education is not a consumer good, it is a right for everyone, and if you want to change things they are not just going to give it to you, you have to stick out your neck a bit and fight for it. I’m really happy to see the strikes, it’s great that the university staff are standing up for themselves.

What else should people know about the occupation and what it stands for?

This isn’t about students and students need to stop making it about themselves. This is about the workers, it’s a bummer to miss lectures because you want to learn, but the people that are missing out the most are the people that are on strike and we can’t forget this.

We want our education system to be democratic, run by the people that study and work here, let’s scrap the Vice-Chancellor position and have proper democratic bodies that make decisions. It’s not up to Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn to come in to office and fix this, we need to hold on to the vision of education that we want; we need to start having these conversations. People need to stop waiting for others to do things on their behalf.

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