One of the key moments of the academic year 2017-18 was the UCU (Universities and Colleges Union) strike action in February-March 2018. As academic staff went on strike for a total of 14 days to defend their pensions (under threat from university managements’ decision to undermine defined benefits), it raised questions for students, researchers and staff alike about the role of the university, and the meaning of public good. Here we present two interviews (conducted by Mathilda Rosengren and Saba Sharma) from the last day of the strike at the Downing Site picket, one with two lecturers at the Geography department, and another with undergraduate students.
In the first interview, with Mia Gray and Charlotte Lemanski, both lecturers at the Department of Geography, a key theme emerges about the importance of education as a public good, and the need to defend this idea in the universities. Both emphasised that the strike was as much about protesting the overall privatisation of education as it was defending the pensions of lecturers themselves. For Mia, this was important not just for themselves, but also to safeguard pensions for early career academics who would be the worst hit by the cutbacks. And as Charlotte correctly pointed out, it was also in solidarity with precarious workers elsewhere, who did not have the legally sanctioned right to strike as they did.
Both lecturers were quick to relate the strike back to their own research and academic interests as well. Mia looks specifically at unions themselves, and how they create solidarity and social infrastructure, and are driven by a sense of the public good. Charlotte’s work is also concerned with social injustice (in India and South Africa), but she also sees academics themselves as having an important public role in speaking up for these issues, within and beyond their research.
Both Charlotte and Mia were keen to emphasise the solidarity they had received not just among staff, but from students, who were frequently seen visiting with coffee, baked goods, or just spending some time at the pickets. For the second interview, we met four such students at the site (all third-year undergraduates), each of whom agreed with the striking staff. While they acknowledged the strike was disruptive, this, they asserted, was the point. They directed their frustration around this at university management instead of their lecturers. All saw the industrial action as an important moment at which to reflect on the privatisation of education, and the need to raise voices against this trend.
(Video editing and subtitling by Mathilda Rosengren, text by Saba Sharma)