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Solidarity: What we can Learn from Strikes in Hilary

The topic of this article needs little introduction. If you haven’t seen or been impacted by the vast array of strikes that have occurred nationally, I wouldn’t hesitate to question which rock you’ve been living under for the last year. The strikes have impacted a vast array of sectors, most notably transport, the NHS, postal services, and of course education. In December 2022 alone, 822,000 working hours were lost across the UK. So what has been the more relatable impact on Oxford students and staff?

When scanning back through the articles we had published across Hilary term in the Comment section of Cherwell, I was almost stunned to realise that none of them had been about the strikes. Last term, I often walked to my lectures wondering whether I would be retracing my steps fifteen minutes later because they had been called off. The strikes planned for late February and early March were thankfully called off, but the impact on teaching in Hilary was significant nonetheless.

For students, the disruption to the education that many of us accumulate masses of debt for each year is understandably exasperating. Despite this, the overwhelming reaction I have gathered has been in support of the strikes. I feel that many of us recognise that if we are to be given the incredible educational opportunity Oxford promises, staff need to be in the position to provide such an experience. To do so, they need to be fairly paid and be in a secure financial position. This allows them to dedicate their attention to teaching us and providing the knowledge that their field-leading expertise often allows.

Despite this, frustrated students are opposed to these actions. Take my coursemate for example. Upon realising that yet another of our politics lectures had been cancelled, she exasperatedly argued that such pay disputes shouldn’t affect her educational experience. It is easy to empathise with such an argument, especially for international students who pay so much more than the rest of us. However, current pay conditions have been (and still are) a massive barrier to the wellbeing of staff. The ability of lecturers to make ends meet comes well above the comparatively mild inconvenience we have felt on those cold February mornings thrown with the news a lecture wouldn’t be taking place. 

Amidst the chaos, the impact on those who teach us should be our most important consideration. Last term, one of my tutors took ‘action short of a strike’ to show his solidarity with those striking by dedicating the first quarter of our tutorial to helping us gain an understanding of why staff were striking.  Hearing personally from him about how tough the conditions are given the exceptionally high expectations of this university was eye-opening.. My coursemates agreed, saying it gave them a renewed sense of support for the action and an appreciation for just how important a strong pay deal is for our tutors. I feel that we can often become detached from the human side of such struggles and hearing a first-hand account gives us an appreciation of how all-consuming they can be in the lives of others. A large part of what we can do as students is listen to our tutors and lecturers, simply aiming to understand why the action is occurring so we can empathise with them.

Staff, including DPhil students who take up work as tutors, are overworked and underpaid, often unfairly compensated for the time they put in alongside their other commitments. Comparisons have been made between working conditions at Oxford and the ‘gig economy’ – work done on fixed term contracts, with little stability as the permanence of many jobs is unreliable. Generally, the gig economy undermines workers’ rights and there has been much debate about whether more protection is needed. Is this what we want for our university staff?

Returning to the action my tutor took, I believe we can learn from his approach and develop a stronger relationship between students and staff that brings benefits for all involved. I would urge all students (and tutors who may read this) to adopt an open mind, educating themselves and spreading awareness to each other. Reach out, have a conversation, let your tutors know you support their action- they devote a large portion of their careers to helping us, an often almost thankless commitment. The least we can do is support their livelihoods, and a student-staff alliance would go a long way to defending against the common, invisible enemy of inflation. 

Such collaboration does not mitigate the need for strikes. Ultimately, I do not believe there is a viable alternative to strike action under current conditions. Strikes are an effective way of gaining national coverage and therefore awareness, and the disruption they cause is a necessary side effect of such an arrangement. Essential services like education going unprovided is unsustainable and forces employers and the government to take action. In a time where we have a government that likes to deflect, distract, and undermine the rights of the working people who give the most to this country, it is vital that grassroots action like striking continues and is not repressed or demonised. Unless a deal is struck to pay staff fairly and competitively, Oxford risks losing top talent to the private sector or other institutions, especially amidst a drop in research funding attributed to our exit from the EU. I do not doubt for a second the passion for teaching that many professors and lecturers have, but there will undoubtedly come a point where these conditions are no longer viable. For this reason, we can do nothing but hope that whatever deals are agreed are enough to soften the blow of the current cost of living crisis.

Image Credit: Caledonian Union/ CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr

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