Debate: Should students demand refunds for strikes?

For: Demanding refunds aids the staff cause

By Raghad Al-Lawati

Industrial action is intended to cause disruption significant enough to get the upper hand in negotiations, and the cancellation of lectures affecting an estimated 1.5 million students around the UK is disruptive to say the least. I am in no doubt as to whether or not the UCU strike action is for a worthy cause: the typical academic is predicted to lose out on around £10,000 a year from their retirement income, a result of Universities UK (UUK) ending defined-benefits schemes. Like most of my fellow students, I stand in absolute sympathy and solidarity with our lecturers.

However, students are becoming increasingly worried about the interruptions to their academic courses. Many of us find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place: we can either cross the picket lines and minimize any disruption to the valuable education we paid for, or stand in solidarity with our lecturers and face any consequences this could have on academic performance.

Supporting our striking lecturers and getting our value for money during a vital time in the academic year should not be mutually exclusive, and naturally, students are asking for compensation for lost contact hours. For those who are in their final year of study, the effects of the industrial action may have serious consequences. Universities should take such demands seriously.

Those opposing the idea of student refunds claim that they would buy into the idea of the marketization of higher education. This line of thinking deeply is flawed: you don’t “buy into” an idea that already exists, you either accept the reality of the situation or continue to live in denial. When the issue concerns thousands of pounds worth of hard earned money or student debt, ignorance is far from bliss. Let’s not forget that at least 20% of university students in the UK are international, most of whom have left their families and invested large sums of money in pursuit of the quality of education such universities provide. The model of students as consumers is, unfortunately, a fact of modern life. When universities behave as businesses, demand large sums of money and market their facilities and educational services like packaged products, they should be prepared to consider consumer claims when they arise.

Essentially, students are shedding light on a deeper issue that goes beyond lost contact hours and missed lectures, confirming the dangers that come with current trends in higher education. Such demands can serve as a constructive warning for universities moving forward, and, as with any social change, progress calls for acknowledgement first.

Others argue that student claims undermine the main cause of the strike. Far from this, the reality is that demands for compensation payments are only compounding strike action and increasing pressure for negotiations to move forward. Appealing to the university’s pockets is one of the few ways we students can actively support our lecturers, all the while reclaiming what we are owed. As mentioned, strikes are meant to cause disruption, and as such student dissatisfaction is better viewed as a natural and intended consequence of industrial action. If anything, the fact may be that marketization has actually created a stronger bargaining position for the UCU.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the strike does not fall on the UCU, who are defending themselves against significant cuts to their hard-earned pensions, nor does it fall on students and their academia. It falls on the shoulders of the UUK and the universities under its umbrella, and refund claims are one of the many consequences that can be expected when a situation escalates to the point of strike action.

 

Against: Refund campaigns are a dangerous distraction

By Olly Marsters

Tens of thousands of students from dozens of university campuses have signed petitions, demanding that their educational institutions should compensate them for contact hours they have missed due to ongoing strikes. Students are entitled to feel frustrated and anxious that they may be left ill-prepared for assignments. However, to ask for financial compensation is to accept that students are consumers and that education is a commodity rather than a public good. The noticeable impact of these strikes on the lives of students makes it more likely for Universities UK (UUK) to drop proposals that put at risk the financial security of 40% of our teaching staff. That must be our goal and calls for compensation undermine this and the effectiveness of striking in general.

Already the Tory government is using these emerging petitions to downplay the issue at hand: the reforms to the ‘Universities Superannuation Scheme’ (USS). Tory minister Sam Gyimah has even argued that one idea could be for universities to ensure that their staff ‘make up’ the hours missed on non-strike days. Conservative attempts to side-line the need to protect workers’ rights is deplorable yet far from unexpected. However, students unintentionally considering a few missed tutorials as more important than the livelihoods of their lecturers is allowing Tory ministers and university management to shift the focus away from ensuring that a just settlement is reached which protects the pensions of our teaching staff. To demand compensation for missed lectures is merely a distraction from this political objective.

Perhaps that is unfair, or at least, it should be emphasised that no one suggests demanding compensation precludes one from supporting the strikes. Even if our government does not admit it, it remains obvious that student anger is directed at university management and not the striking staff themselves. But this presents another issue, that we show solidarity only on the condition that we obtain a refund.

To argue, for instance, that the money that would have otherwise been paid to staff should be put into student funds, completely misses the point. If anything we should be supporting strike funds for our lecturers who are currently having to go without a significant part of their wages. No member of staff has taken the decision to withdraw their labour gleefully. They are not celebrating the prospect of unpaid leave. Truthfully, if the university were to offer us financial compensation for missed classes, we should accept it and immediately donate it to strike funds if we were to take seriously our solidarity with striking staff.

Finally, to make the argument for financial refunds is to accept the commodification of our education system. Even if you were to accept the marketisation of education and argue as Mr Gyimah does that we have ‘consumer rights’ you cannot calculate the value of classes by dividing one’s fees by the number of contact hours. That is simply not how the system works. If it did,  tuition fees would vary across schools and departments. We must resist any attempt to label us as consumers, as not to do so would be failing to resist further privatisation and inequality within higher education.

Yes, students shall be affected by the strikes. However, instead of demanding compensation for this and buying into government claims that education is a commodity, let’s stand shoulder to shoulder with our striking staff in the knowledge that this struggle is bigger than ourselves or a few missed tutorials. Most importantly let’s join staff on picket lines, focus our efforts on condemning employers and prevent the media from portraying our missed classes as being more important than the rights of our lecturers and academic staff. The longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.

Image: Andrew Perry

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