When I was on our little bus trip around Belgium a few weeks ago, a student officer was pressing me on how industrial action in higher education works.
We were in full agreement that staff should be paid more, that the long run real-terms cuts to pay and pensions were scandalous, and that the university (and wider public) sector that was starting to unfurl on our visits was a reminder of how easy it is to not notice when decline is slow but relentless.
When he asked that question about how strikes work, at first I thought that he meant the nuts and bolts – the ballots, the thresholds, the picketing laws and so on – but as I was mid-flow, he was keen to stop me to reframe his question.
No, he said. Why would they result in better pay and conditions?
It turned out to be an excellent way to while away a journey.
I always get what I deserve
Given the bulk of the big disputes these days are in the public sector, in some settings disruption picks up considerable media coverage and puts pressure on ministers to find additional funding.
But higher education strikes don’t garner much attention – especially when nurses, teachers and train drivers are on strike too. And given that UCU seems to have walked into the trap set by marketising governments of allocating blame principally to knavish vice chancellors, ministers are free to ignore the underpinning funding issues with impunity.
Sometimes a particular firm or group of firms in an industry is beset with disruption, and so customers or contracts flow to those parts of an industry not hit by walkouts.
But just as the tactic has been to aggregate the finances of the sector to make pay claims look more affordable than they really are in many cases, the aggregation of the ballot means there’s no particular pressure on those hit by the action – because pretty much everyone is hit by it.
Keep your focus, keep your nerve
From time to time, sector-wide action might be enough to persuade customers or funders to ignore a particular sector altogether.
But there’s no sign of a hit to domestic student demand, the sector has a tendency to believe it’s selling programmes rather than educational tourism (and sometimes immigration) to international students, and it’s rarely research activity that takes a hit during a dispute.
In some cases there’s a short term hit to business when customers or funders choose to not pay for something that looks set to be disrupted by an industrial dispute.
But higher education is generally signed up for as a package in advance – and even if you don’t pay the full amount on entry, once you’re on the rollercoaster, it’s almost impossible to get off. There’s no real hit to income from the dispute.
Pick up the pace and step on it
Fee-paying students do, in theory, have consumer rights to have the learning opportunities that were promised to them to be delivered, with Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) case summaries repeatedly reaffirming that merely not assessing on what hasn’t been taught isn’t enough.
But the lack of reliable information on what would count as making up sufficiently for lost teaching, the marathon involved in exhausting internal procedures (geddit) and UCU branches regarding student complaints as hostile consumerism rather than a useful pressure tactic all conspire to cause students to shrug their shoulders rather than claim compensation instead.
And when the bulk of growth these days comes from international PGTs who won’t even be in the country when stage one of your complaints procedure finds a way to claim you could never have predicted that the freak and entirely unpredictable accident of the strike would disrupt their programme a little bit, is it any wonder that so few students generate a threat of mass refunding to accelerate the resolution the dispute.
Perhaps, in scenarios where they are weak, you might expect the new(ish) student-focussed regulator to step in to defend their interests.
But when you contrast with its sound and fury over grade inflation, free speech, access or outcomes, in England the Office for Students (OfS) has been eerily quiet on any hit to quality caused by industrial action – begrudgingly slipping out technical briefing notes that explain what its approach to the topic is without ever pointing out that there’s no evidence it has ever deployed that approach on previous disputes.
“OfS may undertake further investigation and, if appropriate, enforcement action” rings hollow if you have no stories of doing so in the past, and have been dragging your hells on improving student contractual rights since your inception.
Rip up the place if you want it
Will eighteen days of strike action and a looming marking and assessment boycott change things for students? If your teaching is mainly on a Thursday, you’re in a department where most staff are UCU members, and those members can get close to sticking it out for all eighteen days, maybe.
Otherwise the danger is that the picket lines and the oil drums become a kind of rite of passage – a chance for many students to place on instagram their participation in the dying days of a decaying government bedevilled with industrial strife in an age when the annual NUS demo is a distant memory.
As our bus pulled into Antwerp, I realised I’d spent an hour or so, under sustained curiosity from a student officer, singularly failing to identify how strikes might result in better pay and conditions for staff specifically, or better funding for universities generally. The students I work with are often clever like that.