2023 will go down as a year of disruption. We’ve become accustomed to a rolling backdrop of activism, striking doctors, teachers, and train companies.
Students are no exception – as higher education institutions grapple with disturbance from all directions.
University staff are playing catchup with the combined effects of the pandemic, the rapid adoption of AI technologies that threaten academic integrity, and ceaseless rounds of teaching strikes and marking boycotts.
But the latest blow is Just Stop Oil’s (JSO) campaign to target university campuses, just as the most recent UCU strike concludes and the next waits in the wings.
After making headlines in the spring and autumn with their slow marches and stunt protesting, JSO had a break over the summer. In an open letter to Vice Chancellors sent on 19th September, Just Stop Oil gave VCs a three-day ultimatum: “If you do not sign and return the attached letter by Friday 22nd September, students will have no choice but to bring a wave of civil disobedience to their campuses.”
“It is time for you to pick a side. Either you side with the government, and the education secretary who is responsible for allowing the UK’s places of education to physically crumble into disrepair – or you side with your students as they take action to protect their lives and their futures.”
A JSO spokesperson said government plans for more oil and gas are “an act of war against the young”, and branded universities “complicit in this by accepting millions of pounds in research grants from fossil fuel companies”.
It gave campuses a taste of civil disobedience in June, where an Exeter student interrupted graduation ceremonies. It was quickly shut down. JSO activist and university student Paul says:
Universities prop up and legitimise the government as they enact a genocide. This is an utter violation of their duty of care to students and staff.
In this new round of disruption they plan to overwhelm the prison system, and in light of new police powers granted by the Public Order Act, excessive arrests and incarceration are more likely.
JSO couldn’t have picked a more divisive time to target campuses. Just as a new cohort of freshers begin their education, universities have reached boiling point, with thousands of graduates in limbo without a degree and management trying to wrestle with industrial action from staff and anger from dissatisfied students.
A 5-month-long marking and assessment boycott ended at the beginning of September. It was predicted earlier in the year that only 2% (1 in 50) of students would be affected, but it’s clear that the actual number is much higher.
Industrial action began in 2018, and strikes are set to continue into 2024 pending a UCU vote. This would see universities entering their seventh year of disruption, more than double the length of most university degrees.
For most students and graduates, then, severely disrupted learning is all they’ve even known.
Without compensation or apology
Bristol graduate Grace, 23, said teaching was disrupted over the whole four years of her degree, “without compensation or apology” from the university, and still no final grade. Bristol offered students a choice: either they could graduate in the summer with no grade or wait and graduate in November.
Many international students, Grace said, are waiting on Visas and government funding which depends on them achieving a certain grade, so their days in the UK are potentially numbered.
Anya, 22, originally from Russia hasn’t received her grades for Spanish and Philosophy, without which she can’t renew her Visa that runs out in October. Petitions are circulating, but students are understandably sceptical about the impact of any action.
UoB Vice Chancellor Evelyn Welch tweeted to say she would stand by non striking staff and herself help mark final year essays in an attempt to lessen the impact of the boycott on students. Striking staff retorted that the Welch’s “precious time” was better spent elsewhere.
Clemmie, 23 has just graduated from Edinburgh and is also waiting on a degree classification:
This has had a significant impact on my employment prospects, with interviewers sceptical of my unclassified and pending degree.
At a time when students are “increasingly failed by burgeoning educational businesses”, she critiques an “attempt to pitch students against the striking staff”.
Students are largely in support (63%) of lecturer strikes, according to one Yougov poll, and it is the university leadership they are unhappy with.
At Edinburgh graduation this summer, Lizzie, 23, says, students ripped up their un-graded “degree certificates” – grades were substituted with platitudes and empty congratulations. News that their Vice Chancellor was getting a pay rise, while students graduating without a degree weren’t offered any compensation for disruption was met with particular frustration.
In light of this, perhaps the last thing universities want right now is to be seen pumping money into preventing civil action like that of of JSO – similar to the outrage sparked by the £150m spent on security at the King’s coronation earlier this month – while students don’t have a degree and aren’t much closer to getting one. Shutting down activism rather than supporting students might just be the start of a PR nightmare for uni leaders.
And universities are having to confront larger, existential questions about the value of a degree. The pandemic gave rise to this discourse, with course coordinators rushing to assure students that a fully remote degree studied from one’s childhood bedroom was in fact worth the same £27,000k.
According to Linkedin, the number of jobs without a degree requirement increased by 90 per cent between 2021 and 2022. Student turnover is greater, with around one in 37 (over 40,000) dropping out last academic year, the highest figure on record. Existential questions aren’t helped by a cohort with few employment prospects and no degree.
The threat to student retention extends beyond academics – seven in ten students surveyed this year considered dropping out, with over half saying rising costs were ‘ruining’ their university experience.
Just like climate protestors, student anger towards higher education institutions is palpable. And students are retaliating. Manchester rent strikes earlier this year saw 350 students collectively withhold over £2 million.
The first strike in 2020 led to a 30 per cent decline in rent in halls from 2020-21. In June 2020, Oxford students coordinated a “sit-in” to protest the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oriel college because of colonial roots, whilst Bristol students led efforts to bring down Edward Colston’s statue.
It’s JSO’s student arm who are protesting this month. An Oxford University spokesperson said they have “contingency plans in place to minimise the impact of industrial action on staff, students and visitors”.
Vice Chancellors, JSO say, had until 1st November to stand against the renewal of new oil and gas licences. It’s unknown how detrimental an effect this will have on universities. But it’s likely to be particularly painful now.