Or the most frustrating hour of my life
by Thea Voyles
2nd March 2020
The UCU and Senior Management Q&A held Thursday, 13 February felt a lot like divorce court. Both were part of an elaborate game of He said, She said. Neither was willing to admit any flaw or failure. And nobody was paying much attention to anything the “kids” had to say.
Illustration by Grace Han
From this student’s point of view, two key questions went unaddressed, even though they were asked several times, in several different ways:
Will the strike be effective?
Most students are concerned about whether the strike will lead to an improvement in Courtauld employees’ working conditions. Yet the union representatives could not explain why this fifth year of striking would accomplish something the first four did not.
Instead, the UCU responded to these questions with the same data about gender pay inequalities and casualization, accusations that Senior Management forcefully denied thirty minutes later. I am inclined to believe the UCU. Working conditions in academia are by and large probably terrible, and the idea that our TAs are badly paid does not stretch the powers of imagination. Yet, they said nothing to clarify how the strike would be useful this year when it has not been in previous years. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the people the strike is aimed against are in no way affected by the strike, and the people who are affected – the students – have very little power to help the UCU besides wearing solidarity stickers and answering survey questions.
How will the administration mitigate the impact of this disruption on students?
Questions about our fees, the possibility of compensation, and the damage to our education were answered mostly by Antony Eastmond, the Dean of Students, who by and large told us essentially that we could visit the library but that they lacked precedent for taking any action to compensate the students for having the remainder of their term stolen from them.
The Q&A left me feeling disrespected and somewhat heartbroken. I love this institution, and I am deeply grateful to my professors and TAs for all they have taught me. I believe they deserve to be paid more, and equally. But I am also frustrated that neither the union nor the administration are productively discussing their differences, especially as they contradict the very facts of the case (the UCU and management have radically different statistics about gender parity and casualisation).
On the union side, I am frustrated that the leadership has not found a more targeted and meaningful way to take action than strike again and again. If this truly is the last resort, why aren’t they, and we, trying to think of new and more productive activism? And on the administration’s side, they seem content to go on failing their employees, their students, and their institutional responsibilities.
This strike seems, more than anything, to be a part of a broader institutional collapse. Both parties seem to have decided that this marriage is fundamentally not working, but like most children of divorce, I still hope that that somehow they can end up in counseling.
Thea Voyles is the author of the column Unrequired Reading where she pesters intelligent people to answer her questions about art, life and the correct way to say darling at private views. Born in New York and raised in Paris and Berlin, she is finally learning to drink English Breakfast tea but will never accept chips as a substitute for fries. When she's not writing for the Courtauldian, she organises and curates pop-up exhibitions of emerging art in London and abroad as one half of NOWCURATION. @theajessamynv @nowcuration