Image: Fred Shan for The Courtauldian
28 February, 2018
The current Universities and Colleges Union strike over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is into its fifth day. Since the strike began last Thursday, I have spent a considerable amount of time at the Courtauld’s picket line documenting it for The Courtauldian. Observing student reactions and talking to lecturers has provided an opportunity to reflect on the Courtauld’s student politics and the politicisation of students in relation to the impasse between university management and academics.
Ordinarily, there is a perception that students are hard-line leftists by default—likely stoked by displays of alignment with left-wing politics and the latching-on to anti-capitalist causes. At the Courtauld, however, political outpourings are generally much less visible—save from the impressive number of students who rallied today for the march to Parliament Square. The Institute’s student-run societies are largely apolitical, and we have none that are affiliated with any of the UK’s mainstream political parties.
Because of this, perhaps, the UCU strike has landed on uncertain footings with Courtauld students. Standing at the picket line, there is a notable division among students over how to interact with it: those who are steadfast in their support of the strikers have refused to cross it, and others who, for varying reasons, have crossed over the threshold. In addition to these two variants, some students have arrived at the Institute intending to enter the building but have been dissuaded by the picketing lecturers who have encouraged them to support their cause by studying elsewhere. The decisions made by these students are indicative of the ambivalent position that students have been put in and demonstrates the importance of the information that is being circulated in relation to the strike.
Until today, there has a been an imbalance in the volume of information that has been supplied to students. Lecturers have released a series of emails—such as Julian Stallabrass’s from 27 February (see also his article)—detailing their reasons for striking and suggestions for how students can show support. The Courtauld’s management, however, until Debby Swallow released a statement to The Courtauldian this afternoon, have been less vocal. All we have received are emails from Tony Eastmond, Dean and Deputy Director, informing us of the actions that the Courtauld’s management is taking to mitigate the disruption to students caused by the strike whilst not addressing the substance of the strike directly.
Importantly, these have served to remind us that the strike is not about students. In Tony Eastmond’s email sent on Wednesday 21 February, he wrote:
I understand you may have deeply held ethical concerns about doing so [crossing the picket line], but would remind you that this strike is by the members of UCU about their pension provision; it is not about you. You need to balance your views on the strike and your desire to continue your learning.
While this is true in the sense that the current strike action is related to academics’ pensions—and putting aside suggestions that it is inextricable from wider issues of university marketization which explicitly impact students—the UCU’s strategy of withdrawing teaching for fourteen days has put students at the centre of the impasse over negotiations. The disruption to our education has become a tool to expedite talks between the UUK and the UCU. And therefore the suggestion that we should balance our positions on the strike and our “desire to continue [our] learning” presents an illusion of agency that, many students do not feel. For many, the strike has caused widespread uncertainty—especially for those whose lecturers who are not striking as they have been forced to decide between potentially compromising their exam performance and supporting academics who are on strike.
Deciding how to engage with strike as a student is an issue that is amplified by the Courtauld’s scale. Being an institution comprising around five hundred students, students and lecturers have a proximity which is unique compared to larger academic institutions. For two reasons this is important: first, it provides a partial explanation for why student politics at the Courtauld does not manifest in overt forms—simply, there are not enough students that share the same politics. Second, it results in an uneasy placing of students in relation to the current strike.
Unlike larger institutions, the Courtauld’s management is not an anonymous bureaucracy; we likely have all had some form of personal contact with Debby Swallow or Antony Eastmond. Likewise, the striking lecturers are not half-recognised faces from labyrinthine faculty buildings but, for undergraduates at least, well known to us. As the Courtauld lacks the cushioning of the abstraction of scale, it does not operate in a neatly divided tripartite structure of lecturers, students and management and decisions such as crossing the picket line are made personal and individualised.
I think, however, it would be remiss to try and attribute blame for the student position at the Courtauld to either the lecturers or the university’s management; it is undeniable that nobody wants the disruption to escalate, and news that informal talks have begun is reassuring news. But, the dispute over the pension changes continues to be played-out over student bodies and has precipitated a politicisation of Courtauld students which has resulted in us finding ourselves in the interstice between university management and the UCU strikers—politicised as instruments, rather than actors.
This piece is part of The Courtauldian's coverage of the UCU Strike which began on 22 February 2018. View our Facebook page and Instagram account for more coverage.