Students are frustrated. We’re helping to amplify and channel that frustration

Matt Johnstone is Academic Officer at the University of York Students’ Union

Last autumn, I really bought into the UCU strike hype.

I was reading the expertly-crafted briefings on Wonkhe, I read through (and got scarily close to understanding) NIESR’s paper evaluating risk held by USS, I read up on the 2020 valuation, tried to keep up with everything coming out of UCU and USS, and I funnelled all of that energy into our strike response. It was swift, decisive, and overwhelmingly divisive.

I didn’t mean to create a rift in the student population, but when you’re asking people whether or not they think their SU should support strike action it apparently dissolves into a political debate – something which society isn’t very good at respectfully dealing with right now. We can debate surfacing the road to hell later – in the meantime I’d like to dive into what we’ve learned, and how we’ve changed our approach.

What did we do?

First, we knew we had to explain some basics to students. Not every student will understand what UCU is, for many ASOS is a shop not a type of action, and many more won’t understand the issues at stake. We dusted down our information from last time, and we reminded students about their rights in relation to missed learning.

Next, we thought we were being really clever. We saw a variety of approaches taken by other SUs across England, some sooner than others (looking at you Students’ Union UCL), and we firmly chose the path of democracy. If we were asking our membership what they thought we should do, how could we go wrong?

On a cold Thursday evening we received confirmation that our local branch of UCU would be taking strike action (on at least the pension dispute) in the coming weeks and months, and that set everything in motion.

By close of play the following day we’d set up an informal online ballot with a simple yes or no on strikes and action short of a strike, planned and sent out invites for a roundtable Q&A with representatives from UCU and University senior management, and bathed slightly in our everlasting glory. We knew what we were doing, we knew why we were doing it, and we were confident.

The roundtable Q&A was a successful hybrid event, with a recording later made available online to those unable to make it at the time. Engagement with the ballot wasn’t ideal (693 responses, approximately 3 percent turnout), but we had a Brexit-like majority in favour of supporting strike action. With our rapid approach we managed to keep the ballot open for a full 7 days, and closed it with more than a week to go before the strikes began in December.

We had student officers and a number of student groups out on the picket lines each morning providing as much comfort to striking colleagues as we could with urns of hot water and supermarket-brand instant coffee. We gave out fruit, cereal bars, mince pies, and sweets.

On request I even stepped up to the mic at the Friday morning rally and gave an incredibly awkward speech, stumbling through the SU’s fully mandated support for striking staff in their fight against pension cuts and poor working conditions.

How did it go?

The result of our hard work was exhaustion throughout the SU team after a long and tricky term, our (presumed) members waging political crusades on anonymous social media platforms, UCU members in receipt of some short-term validation, and university senior management took one look at our slim majority vote (with our 3 percent turnout) and went back to their regularly scheduled programming.

Mission: accomplished.

After almost two years of responding to a pandemic, with a sabb team who were so used to being reactive (we all came into post during Covid times, even those of us now in our second term), it turns out our political campaigning was a little bit rusty.

I was originally elected during the February 2020 strikes, so when strike action hopped onto our radar in October 2021 it felt almost poetic – I was energised, ran at the problem head-first, and took a lot of inspiration from what the SU had done previously.

I got so wrapped up in our previous approach that I completely neglected the fact that the collective memory of our student body only vaguely remembered the strikes in the 19/20 academic year – worse yet, there was almost no memory of the strike action from 17/18.

Our members were still getting over Covid, and it just wasn’t reasonable for us to expect them to quickly come to terms with strikes on top of that.

So, what now?

When we were planning our action for this term, we considered doing exactly the same thing as last time – re-ballot the student body (albeit with more emphasis on physically engaging our members with QR codes and pestering them on campus), another roundtable Q&A, and then more teas and coffees on the picket lines.

But then we got thinking, and we figured out a completely different approach.

When we balloted at the end of 2021, we included an optional space for open comments. Lots of those open comments were directly linked to the vote cast – those who voted in favour tended to be angrily in support of striking staff, many of those who voted against were angrily opposed to the upcoming strikes.

It seems obvious when it’s written like that, but the key thing we can take away from that raw feedback is anger.

Students are frustrated. That’s been the case for years with inflating tuition fees and the general contempt with which the government faces the two million students in the UK. But with strikes? That’s the latest in a long line of outlets students can use to channel that frustration.

The question then becomes, how do we channel that frustration in a useful way? We could channel it directly at UCU for actually going on strike, but that pits students against staff and riles up the left in a serious way. We could place the entire blame on the university, but then you’re just asking for a tabloid article about entitled lecturers and their entitled students.

What we did instead is keep it simple.

Kiss FM

Over the past week we’ve printed and cut hundreds of postcards (all on cardstock made from 100% recycled fibres, of course), and we’ve been out on campus asking students to sign them. The majority are addressed to the Vice Chancellor and simply state facts – students are disappointed to see further disruption, we want to see better working conditions for all staff (including, of course, our PGRs who teach), and we tied it neatly into the university’s new strategic aim to be a university for public good.

We’re collecting the postcards back in, and we’ll hand them to the VC in a week or two.

We’re not asking students whether they support striking staff (although we’re providing postcards where they can write comments for/against to UCU, which we’ll also deliver for them), and we’re not asking students whether they oppose the strikes (there’s also an open and anonymous google form for comments to the VC if they want to take up that offer). We’re simply asking them to add their voice to hundreds of others in a show of frustration, and we’re making it tangible.

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