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After the First Wave: the Continuing Effects of the UCU Strike

On Wednesday 21 March, Tony Eastmond, Deputy Director and Dean of the Courtauld, held an all students meeting to address concerns about future industrial action relating to the USS pensions dispute. The meeting, which lasted almost an hour, attracted some considered responses from students—especially from BA3—but ended equally as uncertain as it began.

Originally the meeting had been scheduled for the last Thursday of the initial strike phase after it had become clear that a resolution between UUK and the UCU would not be reached. Moved to a more timely date, the meeting on Wednesday provided an opportunity for the Courtauld’s senior management to take stock of students’ concerns in the interim between the first strike stage and a possible second stage later in the academic year.

At present, a second phase of strike action seems a likely eventuality. Writing on the UCU’s website on Monday, the General Secretary, Sally Hunt, emphasised that if a second wave of strikes were to go ahead that the “aim will be to disrupt the assessment season substantially.” Regardless of whether this course of action is taken, it is troubling for students across the university, especially when coupled with the UCU’s call for external examiners to resign—a call that has been taken up by many external examiners, but none associated with the Courtauld are listed on the UCU’s website so far.

Both of these points were addressed by Tony Eastmond at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting. He stated that the Courtauld is working to the originally planned schedules for both the examination period and graduation. And, in addition, that external examiners are “not a mandated part” of the ratification process, and that due to the Courtauld’s procedure of using first and second markers, the resignation of external examiners should not affect the awarding of degrees.

The threats to the exam period, however, are not merely administrative or logistical ones. Irrespective of whether the strike has a second phase, the quality of teaching has been negatively impacted during the last month—a point commented on by both Eastmond and a large number of students at the meeting. Before the strikes began, and during them, students were reassured that content not covered due to missed teaching would not be examined. While superficially this seems comforting, the fact that some courses ran for their full ten weeks and others were cut short, has led to concerns about how this disparity will be addressed.

The arguments from students regarding the disparity are many. A large proportion have centred on fears of self-plagiarising and maintaining a depth of argument despite missing out on large amounts of taught content during the strike while the exam formats have not been adapted. In an attempt to ease these concerns, Eastmond called for ideas for alternative methods of examination which attracted suggestions of exams with fewer questions, take-home exams, or their replacement with formally assessed essays.

However, while this is advantageous for those who have missed teaching, it is seemingly less helpful to those whose courses ran their full length. For those who did not officially have their lectures cancelled, the offsite classes that were held during the strike were criticised as being of a lower standard than the classes that they substituted. And, for these students, changes to exam formats could mean that they have nearly double the volume of content to revise than their peers.

The current response to these grievances by the Courtauld’s senior management is undetermined. While some students were likely expecting Wednesday’s meeting to provide some answers, it instead seemed like a listening post for senior management to form a strategy that would attract the least hostility from students.What the Wednesday meeting confirmed is that the student position in relation to the strike has come to an interesting juncture. Now, after the first wave, there is a revived student interest in the strike due to its definite, and potential future, effects on examinations. The expression of this concern—which based on Wednesday’s meeting is resonating across cohorts—perhaps explains the results of the poll that The Courtauldian conducted between Friday 16 March and Monday 19 March 2018.

The poll featured four options and was intended to gauge student opinion on the strike action on the last day of the first wave. Of the 331 respondents, the majority said that they “still supported the strike” (44%). This was followed by “did support the strike but now do not” (29%) and “never supported the strike” (23%) coming close second and third. The option “did not support the strike but now do” (<1%) and “other” (3%) attracted the least number of votes.

The results are revealing, although the initial figures suggest a majority of support, combining the second and third most popular responses (both indicating that the respondents currently do not support the strike) totals 52% - 8% more than those who do support the strike. The large percentage of respondents who chose “did support the strike but now do not” signifies a significant shift from initial student support to a less sympathetic position; this is likely in relation to concerns over how a second strike could impact the examination period.

Regardless of whether the strike action continues, the fallout of the first phase will continue to be felt throughout the student body. How the Courtauld will take action to mitigate its impact seems to certainly be a work in progress and, for now, students are left in uncertainty.

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