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Adam Powell Davies, Oxford Socialist Students

The Office for Students (OFS) has reacted to last week’s impressive UCU strike turnout by seeking to divide university staff and students, with OFS chief Nicola Dandridge bemoaning the ‘disruption’ caused by strike action on students’ education.

What Dandridge and others fail to mention is the far greater disruption that will face students if the university bosses do not meet the union’s demands. The slogan ‘staff working conditions are student learning conditions’ has been blazoned across social media and repeated at UCU rallies and picket lines, and rightly so.

University staff do not strike in opposition to students. The 58 UCU branches taking action from 1-3 December – on the issues of pensions, low pay, casualisation, workload, and discriminatory pay – were fighting against symptoms of the marketised higher education system that sees both students and staff exploited at the hands of university management.

A UCU victory would not only mean an immediate improvement to workers’ living conditions and students’ learning conditions, it would pave the way for further action that could potentially reverse marketisation altogether. This would require a shift to 100% direct government funding for higher education instead of the current system which pushes universities to maximise income from students in the form of rent and tuition fees, while cutting jobs, services, and even entire departments that are deemed ‘unprofitable’.

Scrap fees

The OFS has also suggested that universities offer partial tuition fee refunds as one way to ‘make up for’ strike action. Socialist Students has supported the demand for tuition fee refunds because of the effects of Covid on student learning, but we want full refunds, as a first step to scrapping tuition fees altogether and the cancellation of all student debt.

We demand that higher education be run democratically by staff and students, as a free service open to all in society. We reject the idea that education should come with a price tag, as something that can be discounted in response to ‘consumer’ (i.e. student) dissatisfaction.

Tuition fee refunds must come as part of a fundamental restructuring of our higher education system, not as a one-time attempt to appease students while scapegoating staff. Refunds should also come from the government, not from individual institutions. The Tories have shown that the money is there by bailing out big business during the pandemic.

For all of this to happen, students and staff must stand united. Despite the divisive rhetoric of some student unions, such as the Leeds University student union officialdom that disgracefully used the guise of protecting ‘marginalised students’ to justify not supporting the strike, the National Union of Students (NUS) has chosen to officially back the strikes nationally.

But aside from some well-worded petitions and social media posts, NUS offers little in the way of leadership, and this has been the case for some time. What students need is an actual fighting national students’ union, one that fights for free education and puts words into action by organising walkouts, occupations, protests, and rent strikes as part of its strategic arsenal.