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UCU Strikes: A Non-EU International Student Perspective

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Comment editor Hanna Pham on the UCU strikes from a non-EU international student perspective.

From December 1 to 3, the UCU, Univerisity and College Union, of King’s College London, KCL, will be striking. As a non-EU international student, I was initially annoyed by the idea of strikes, especially since it disrupted my first year in 2019. Together with Covid-19, it felt like I was completely robbed of my university experience. But, after learning more about the working conditions precipitating the strikes as well as my own peers’, other non-EU international students, opinion on the matter, it has become clear that frustration towards the strikes shouldn’t be towards the GTAs that are participating in it, but to the institution of corporate universities that has given them no choice but to retaliate.

One of the major issues regarding the strikes is that despite being charged double the cost for university, that funding is apparently not being used to enhance the lives of those who are teaching us. A third-year student in King’s Business School asserted that the strikes will be “fairly disruptive especially as an international student paying upwards of 20,000 to have classes.” Similarly, another third-year student in War Studies echoed the same concern in saying that the timing of this year’s strikes “is painful as I’ve paid so much money to not have class… it feels like I’m being cheated.”

Both students remember strikes during their first year and the reasoning behind them. The War studies student says that her “understanding is that it’s almost the same as what happened in our first year (AY2019/2020), but with the added Covid-19 dimension.” Essentially, after Covid-19 the grounds for striking have taken on a more sinister edge. Academics are facing retirement pension cuts up to 35% and that number rises to 41% when considering future benefits. Furthermore, Russell group universities, including KCL, have a gender pay gap, as well as a racial one.

Furthermore, as a woman of colour who is interested in academia, it is disheartening to see that a crucial fight for the UCU is the racial and gender pay gap, institutionalised and perpetuated by KCL. One of the most enduring concepts I learned as a university student was intersectionality,  to describe discrimination based on gender and ethnicity, coined by Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. And yet, the theoretical framework has gone over KCL’s head, evading any actual practical materialization.

At the least, I hope that by the time I can partake in this career pay gaps won’t exist, but considering that every year of my university experience the strikes have centred around these issues it is difficult to be hopeful.

A major factor in why I chose to study at King’s College London was the world-renowned professionals and high output of research. And yet, the individuals who are responsible for the reputation that King’s has, especially as perceived abroad, are given financial conditions not appropriate for the prestige of their profession.

In acknowledging this, the whole situation becomes even more frustrating when considering that our tuition is always subject to “additional increases in subsequent years of study.” In addition to this international students in 2018-19 generated 26 billion in economic activity after considering the “costs of teaching support.” Evidently, considering the demands of the UCU, not enough of the 26 billion is being used as such.

It begs the question, where is our tuition money going?

As the War studies student stated succinctly, “it’s not like KCL management can say that they didn’t know that there was a problem or that it would be bad enough to warrant a strike because they’ve known, they always have! They just haven’t done anything to fix it.”

In short, the problem is, as echoed by this student, that the university and government are doing nothing to enhance the job security and employment of academics.

As someone who eventually sees a career in academia, it is frustrating to see my professors and GTAs strike every year for the same reason and have to miss out on invaluable teaching both because of that and extraneous reasons such as Covid-19. But, the core of my frustration lays with our university, which is perpetuating financial instability of their most valuable personnel and deepening inequalities for both male and female academics of colour.

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