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UCU Strike Action – A letter to students from a member of staff

Many members have asked us to post the text of the letter to students from a member of staff that was read out at today’s rally. We have posted the text below. Please share widely, and particularly with your students.

 

Imagine there’s a toxin in the air on campus. You can’t see it or smell it or taste it, but with every breath more accumulates within you. Not everyone is affected, but almost everyone will know someone who is. The physical effects are subtle at first — accelerated heartbeat, headaches, nausea — but the real damage is in the mind. The toxin is known to cause stress, anxiety, and both fatigue and insomnia. It frequently leads to depression. At its worst, the toxin can be fatal.

Like all poisons, the first to fall victim are those who are vulnerable in other ways. But over time the numbers affected grow. They include not only students but staff. No one is safe — from freshers to graduates, from technicians to Professors Emeritus — victims present in ever greater numbers. One in five students is diagnosed. Some universities see a 300% rise in cases amongst staff. Researchers begin to talk of an epidemic.

Suppose it then emerges that the toxin was known about all along. Vice-Chancellors’, University Executives — even members of the Government — knew what you were breathing. And like the tobacco industry in the 50s, they said nothing. And suppose we find out that they not only knew, but it was they who introduced the toxin to the airstream — milligram by milligram — in the knowledge of what it would do. Perhaps to you, perhaps to your friend, perhaps to your tutor. What do you do when you find this out?

The toxin in our air is marketization — the transformation of education from a social good, into a product. The move to administer centres of learning as businesses, within a competitive marketplace. Marketization is not a chemical, and it is not strictly in the air, but it may as well be. Marketization is the reason your degree costs £27,000. It is the reason universities must compete for funding, students and reputation or go bust. It is the reason your essays are marked by staff on zero hours contracts. It is the reason your lecturer works a 50 hour week. It is the reason you’re thinking about how you’ll make a living, not how you’ll change the world. It is the reason you cannot afford to fail. It’s the reason everything we all do is monitored, measured and turned into metastasizing targets. It is the reason you, I, we are all so tired.

All the research into mental ill-health — and stress in particular — highlights three culprits. These are financial insecurity, pressure and working hours. These factors are not side effects of marketization — they are its M.O. The story of the last decade of Higher Education has been the demand — year on year — for university staff to do more and more with less and less. But at a certain point, the only fuel left to burn is the health of the people in the sector. There is only so much a mind can juggle. Students and staff experience marketisation in different ways — but we suffer the same symptoms, from the same source.

The epidemic of mental ill-health in Higher Education is not a problem that can be fixed with yoga, or mindfulness, or awareness raising. It was important to raise awareness of asbestos when its toxic properties became known. But it was far more urgent for us to demand that it be ripped out of our homes, our schools and our workplaces. Before all else, we had to refuse to keep breathing it. And that’s what we’re doing with this strike.

It is also why it is not easy to explain. It is not one just thing — not only financial loss, not only working conditions and insecurity and not only the way these weigh on younger, female and minority staff disproportionately. It is the deeper sense that things cannot go on as they are. That there is something bad in the air around us. And that far, far too many of us — the people we work with and the students we teach, — are falling sick because of it.

On some level, we suspect all staff and students feel this. And so while we know acutely how much pressure you are all under, and how no one needs this disruption right now — we hope everyone can understand why we are not in our lecture halls, our offices and our seminar rooms. The reason we’re out in the cold is because of what happens to people who stay inside.

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