On Tuesday 27 February, a Festival of Solidarity was held at the Potterrow Dome, to express and celebrate student solidarity with academic staff on strike. The Festival was organised by the Edinburgh University’s Students’ Association.
At the last Student Council meeting on 15 February, 95 per cent of present students voted for a motion for student support during the strike.
Since then, the Students’ Association has openly and actively supported industrial action.
Between 12.30pm and 4pm, a variety of events including speeches, a brief lecture and discussion on neoliberalism in education, communal singing of trade union songs, a fiddling performance as well as a drag show took place. In between there was time galore for strike supporters to network.
Moreover, staff members who had defied the ‘beast from the east’ at the picket lines on Monday and Tuesday were rewarded with a free lunch in the Dome.
Vice-President Activities and Services Kai O’Doherty opened the Festival at 1 pm with a welcoming speech.
They soon gave the floor to Dr Suzanne Trill and Dr Mike Holmes, both members of the University and College Union (UCU). Suzanne Trill, who is a lecturer of English Literature, and the branch secretary for UCU at the University of Edinburgh, emphasised the significance of student support in the first week of the strike at the University of Edinburgh.
“I’ve been teaching here for twenty odd years, and we’ve never had a turnout like this, neither in terms of staff participation nor of student support”, she told The Student.
Dr Trill asked students to continue to manifest solidarity with their striking lecturers and to put pressure on the University, for instance by emailing the Principal.
Dr Holmes gave an overview of the changes in the academic pension system since the economic crisis in 2008 and illustrated what continued austerity and privatisation measures meant for the income of individual lecturers.
He stressed the peculiar situation of young academics, who will be especially affected by alterations in the pension systems.
Dr Trill further pointed out that PhD students already face unjust remuneration; because they are paid hourly for the classes they teach, but not for the hours taken up by the preparation of classes.
She also criticised the stance taken by the Principal, Peter Mathieson, who stated his support for negotiations between the University and lecturers, but without making his support public like heads of other universities did.
Vice-President Education Bobi Archer was next on stage and underlined that visible student support was needed for the strike to be successful and to protect the quality of the British higher education system.
She also expressed joy and gratitude about the amount of student support for the strike and summarised the idea behind the Festival by saying that “It sounds cheesy, but their working conditions are out learning conditions.”
“Later, talking to The Student, Bobi said that the vast majority of students who had been in touch with the Students’ Association over the past two weeks were understanding or in favour of the strike.
“I think in many cases where students felt negative about industrial action, it was because they didn’t really know what it meant for their studies and assignments, which makes absolute sense.
She continued pointing out that the Students’ Association played a crucial role in providing this kind of information through an FAQ page on its website and outreach by sabbatical officers.
‘The Students’ Association has made it clear from the start, that while we support striking lecturers, we also stand one hundred percent behind students, and we want to support them throughout the duration of the strike.
“For that reason, we’ve also had weekly meetings with UCU and the University, to ensure, for example, that deadlines with hard copy hand-ins were moved to a day outside the strike, to avoid that students will have to cross picket lines.
“In fact, we have provided relevant information before the University has, and I don’t think there is any excuse for that delay.”
Later during the Festival, Dr Emile Chabal spoke about the history of and logic behind neoliberalism and argued that the strike was provoked by measures which follow from a broader agenda of the marketisation of public institutions – universities – and a public good, namely education.
He concluded that, while a return to a 1950s-style welfare state and public sector was improbable, it remains important to fight for the choice of how public money is distributed and spent, like through this strike.
Students who were present were eager to elaborate on why they had come to the Festival.
Marina, a fourth year Physics student, spoke to The Student: “I’m supporting the strike because the main capital of universities is the academic staff and it is them who the University should invest in, so we all must fight to protect their pensions.
“New buildings won’t improve the quality of teaching, but lecturers with fair working conditions will.
“The best part for me was listening to lecturers’ views on the strike and what the real consequences will be if the pension changes go ahead.
“Another highlight was the teach out discussion on neoliberalism, which illustrated really well why we have come to this situation.”
Isla, a fourth-year student of Social Anthropology with Development, also spoke to The Student: “I went to the Festival to show my support for my striking lecturers from the anthropology department and to hear from other people involved in the strike, to talk to friends involved in the cause and generally enjoy the worker-student solidarity.
“It’s super important for students to support the strike so it actually has an impact – you can do this by not crossing picket lines, i.e. not going into teaching buildings on strike days, sending your lecturers emails of solidarity and getting involved with the Students’ Association solidarity campaign.”
Kai spoke to The Student: “I’m over the moon with how many people turned up and performed at the Festival, with hundreds of staff and students coming through the Dome in the afternoon. What a brilliant display of unity and solidarity between UCU strikers and students!”
Image: Andrew Perry