Southampton UCU strike. Photo: Southern SP
Southampton UCU strike. Photo: Southern SP

Adam Powell-Davies, Socialist Students national organiser

With the UCU announcing its ongoing marking and assessment boycott at 145 UK universities starting 20 April, many students will be looking on anxiously at how this action affects us. Members of Socialist Students offer support to UCU taking action in their dispute to defend pay, conditions and pensions.

Like the national strike action that has already hit universities this year, the current boycott will cause disruption to students. Work, including exams, will go unassessed for as long as the dispute between UCU and university bosses over staff pay and conditions continues – and UCU has already won an overwhelming mandate to continue action into the autumn if needed. This means that final-year students may be delayed from graduating for months to come.

It is therefore understandable for students to feel that, not for the first time, they aren’t getting the university experience they signed up for.

However, it would be a mistake for students to direct our frustration at underpaid and overworked university staff in UCU who, like millions of other striking workers, are simply fighting to stay afloat amid the cost-of-living crisis.

If university staff collectively were given a decent pay rise in line with inflation, with secure contracts and pensions protected, then they wouldn’t be taking this industrial action. Any disruption caused by the current marking and assessment boycott therefore falls squarely at the feet of university bosses and the Tories, who have presided over the deterioration of university workers’ living standards – and higher education generally – over many years.

Some vice-chancellors have said that universities can’t afford to meet UCU’s pay demands. Those universities should have their finances opened to democratic inspection by the campus trade unions, along with democratically elected committees of students. If a university genuinely can’t afford to give its staff at least what the UCU demands, then the government should step in to make up the difference, with money given to universities under trade union oversight. 

While still hugely inadequate, the fact that the Tories offer a central fund worth £276 million for universities to draw on to provide student hardship grants shows the potential for a similar fund to be developed for universities to settle the UCU strikes.

But would the settling of the current UCU dispute mean an end to the disruption students face? Of course not! We’ll still have to skip lectures to work part-time jobs, or forgo buying the books we need for our courses, or choose not to travel to campus some days, all because our maintenance loans don’t go far enough. And we’ll still face the prospect of future university strikes for as long as managements try to compensate for chronic underfunding by slashing staff pay and conditions. As the University of York vice-chancellor wrote in the Financial Times: “The current disputes will not end until undergraduate funding is fixed”.

The root cause of all the disruption students face in our day-to-day lives is  the lack of resources for higher education – whether that’s the wages staff need to live and work comfortably, the maintenance support students need to focus on getting a university education, or any other university service facing cuts. The ending of these strikes won’t mean our university experience is all fine again. Students are facing a major cost-of-living crisis of our own as inflation far outstrips our maintenance loans, with a record number of dropouts so far this year. And we leave university burdened with debt the majority of us will never pay off.

Fight for free education

If UCU is defeated in the current dispute, the vice-chancellors and the Tories will only feel more emboldened to continue their attacks on students, staff and higher education.

That’s why students must do all we can to support the marking and assessment boycott. The best way to end this disruption is to support a speedy UCU victory on pay and conditions. Crucially, a UCU victory would force money from the vice-chancellors and the Tories, showing that more could be won in future through a mass campaign to fully publicly fund our universities and end marketisation – for free education.

But as long as university funding is decided by capitalist governments looking for spending to cut and avenues of profit to open up, our universities will always be at risk of attack. That’s why Socialist Students fights for a socialist society where we, the working-class majority, democratically plan where resources should go in order to meet people’s needs – including the need for a high-quality, fulfilling and free lifelong education.