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Problems in Perspective: Lecturer Strikes in KCL and Monash

A group of people are on the UCU picket line outside the strand people. A few of them are carrying placards that state 'on strike for fair pay' and 'fighting for staff and students'
Photo by Elizabeth Grace

Staff Writers Sarah Stancombe and Sam Lord analyse and unpack the differing reactions to staff strikes in London and Melbourne.

Despite similar hardships facing lecturers, the attitudes to lecturers striking differ significantly between London and Melbourne 

Staff writer Sam Lord addresses the situation at Kings

So far this academic year has been clear of strikes. But last year proved a turbulent time for King’s students. As Fintan Hogan reported, ‘KCL has gone from one of the most disrupted universities in the country to one of the least’

In late January, The University and Colleges Union (UCU) announced unprecedented strike action throughout February and March. In total this resulted in 18 days of strike action, all for which staff were not paid (although some pauses were experienced during this period due to progress in negotiations). 

Anecdotally it becomes evident that the number of strikes varies massively between departments. For those most affected, most of their second term was impacted. My own department, Geography, was particularly affected by the strikes. One module, completely seminar-based, was almost completely skipped, resulting in a redacted coursework assignment. Although there was still some interdepartmental variability as the decision to strike was left to individual lecturers. 

Following this, on 20th April 2023, The UCU announced the commencement of the marking and assessments boycott (MAB). And even though the UCU called off the MAB in early September, the KCL branch announced it would continue due to local disputes. This then came to an end on the 19th of September. 

Of the strikes in the last year, the MAB has definitely proven to be the most disruptive for students, with students of most departments having their grade results delayed. And in the worst scenarios, delaying the marking of IGS proposals. 

For the most part, students do seem to remain supportive for the lecturers striking, however some definitely have grievances, with a few thinking that lecturers shouldn’t be striking at all. 

On a poll conducted on my personal Instagram, in which 64 people answered, I asked “Do you generally support teachers striking?” with Yes or No as possible answers as well as encouraged any further responses to justify their choice. Overall, two thirds of students answered that they supported the strikers. A general support for the strikers, yet the third of respondents who had obvious grievances shouldn’t be ignored.

A majority of KCL students who responded to my poll back staff strikes, though a sizeable minority remain opposed.

One respondent who support the strikes still say they find it “super annoying, since we are paying for education we’re not getting, but I’m still on their side”. Another clearly showed their support for the strikers, adding “if you don’t [support] you’re a tw*t”. 

Another who answered ‘No’ justified it on a more personal level, stating “it leaves me with little to do with my time”. Perhaps indicating that strikes are having an impact on the quality of life for some students at Kings. 

The same respondent also added that they didn’t “fully understand the teacher’s perspective” which could be suggestive that lecturers and the UCU haven’t been clear enough with students about why they’re striking. 

Others questioned the methods used by strikers, or even the medium of striking in general. A respondent who voted ‘No’ explained their reasoning was “not like a hard no, but I don’t feel like it does much”. And another student, who voted ‘Yes’, said they felt senior staff members could be optimising their leverage more.

Ultimately, many who answered ‘No’ did so because they disagree with the burden put upon them, rather than the university they’re striking against. As one respondent put it: “students support teachers’ reasons for striking, but the impact falls upon them and we are powerless to stop the impact affecting us”. 

Strikes of course are designed to be disruptive, and the strikers have said before the reason for student disruption is so more complaints will be made to the university. Though it appear ultimately there’s too much disconnect between the strikers and students. And certainly there’s some confusion amongst students about why lecturers are striking or using the method that they are.

The experience was much different in Monash University (in Melbourne), where students themselves actually went on strike on behalf of lecturers. That hasn’t happened in London, or the UK. 

Staff writer Sarah Stancombe addresses the situation at Monash University

On the 16th of May 2023, Monash University students donned purple badges and skipped class as part of a student strike in support of their university staff, who had previously been on strike themselves on the 3rd of May. National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members from multiple universities across Melbourne met at Trades Hall, demanding their universities limit the use of casual employment, fixed term employment, and reach 80% secure work by 2024. Monash University’s student union, Monash Student’s Association (MSA), collaborated with NTEU to hold a student strike in support of their teachers taking industrial action, and published information explaining what the NTEU was asking for, what they were protesting against, and why students should care.

The main issue for Australian tertiary educators is job security. Many teachers have worked in the same institutions for over ten years, but have never had a contract longer than 12 months. The MSA informed students via social media that 2 in 3 staff are insecurely employed at Monash. This is disrupting their lives, making applying for loans tedious if not impossible due to the lack of proof that they have worked for the same employer for multiple years, or that they will still be employed the following year.

Students are one of the most important stakeholders in this issue, with many agreeing that their education is being disrupted due to the poor working conditions of their tutors. Students have had teachers explain in class that they will only be getting a small amount of feedback on assignments, because they are not getting paid enough to write more. One student considered how she was expected to ‘do well on an assignment when tutors aren’t getting paid to give feedback.’ For the most part, students agree that this is fair, but are understandably appalled that this issue has metastasized to the point that it has entered the classroom and is affecting their learning. It is just as much a student issue as a staff issue, as their quality of education is at stake, with many teachers overworked and feeling the burden of the cost of living crisis.

I too asked on my personal Instagram whether students in Melbourne generally support teachers striking – yes or no. My data showed 97% were in support, with only two no votes compared to 26 yes votes. Concern was raised over the cost of university courses, with one student, when asked for opinions on the strike action, questioning ‘Why are we paying a [student] debt so large if they don’t even pay our tutors well?’ Students are clearly frustrated with the way everyone involved is being treated, and a sentiment of universities as being focussed on business rather than education is emerging. 

The overwhelming majority of students who responded to my poll supported staff members’ right to strike.

Though the teaching conditions seem similar between London and Melbourne, student attitudes differ dramatically towards industrial action. King’s students face a lack of communication leading to more confusion, and feel they are being punished more heavily as a result of strike action. Meanwhile, Monash students are more overwhelmingly in support of strikes as they see better working conditions as directly contributing to a higher quality of education. 

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