By Matt Tomlin
In the Spring semester of 2018, staff from Cardiff University, as well as those from over 60 other universities in the UK, partook in strike action. This was in response to pension cuts being proposed by universities; a means of reducing long-term expenditure for the purpose of solving their financial deficits.
The strike action occurred over a period of four weeks, beginning on Thursday 22nd February, following an 88% strike ballot vote in favour of striking by University and College Union (UCU) members.
Lecturers were not paid for time striking, and Cardiff University has confirmed in their response to a Freedom of Information request conducted by Gair Rhydd that £909,341 was saved from this and was redistributed across student education budgets.
One year on, much of the student body, including sabbatical officers and Student Senate, have been unaware of this figure and to what extent anything may change with regards to what redistributed funds will go towards. This includes whether or not money saved could go towards refunding tuition fees.
The Head of Student Senate and upcoming VP Postgraduate, Nick Fox, told us: “Currently we have no active policy regarding the strike action or returning of fees for lost teaching time”.
However, Fox did mention that there was potential for upcoming debates to be had on the subject by saying: “Any student can submit policy ideas through the upvote/downvote system at cardiffstudents.com/ideas for Student Senate to consider – Student Senate can only debate policy ideas that reach 50 engagement votes (positive or negative) submitted this way.”
Furthermore, one of two student representatives interviewed by Gair Rhydd about this revelation admitted they had heard nothing of this situation in Student rep meetings or student-teacher panels throughout the past year. Wanting to remain anonymous, a second-year student rep for the School of Journalism, Media and Culture explained “Up until now no student has brought this issue up so we haven’t discussed it in any meeting.”
This general lack of awareness is also combined with a lack of clarification from the University as to which academic schools would have had the most redistributed back into their education budgets. The University only provided an overarching figure and has not yet broken it down into different academic schools.
However, enthusiasm for redistributing this money across education budgets is present among those who are aware, or have been made aware by our enquiries, of this redistribution of funds. Esther Llwyd, a third-year student representative for the School of Welsh has told Gair Rhydd that “Although it is very difficult to pin point exactly where and how this money has been redistributed between schools, I personally feel that this has certainly been the case and that students have benefited from the money the University saved due to striking.
“This money has allowed the School of Welsh to organise numerous events outside of lecture hours, all of which have contributed to ensuring that students get the best out of their university experience.”
Nick Fox referred to the situation in a similar way. Giving his current opinion on what should happen with this saved money, he commented “Personally I think any savings should be reinvested back into the student experience and I think it again raises the interesting debate about the current marketisation of the Higher Education system and the extent that students should be treated as consumers.”
But, he did go on to say he could not give a fulll opinion on the subject as not all details of the savings have been made to known to him.
VP Postgraduate Jake Smith also spoke to Gair Rhydd, saying that the debate on this issue needed to be expanded. He surmised about the current situation: “There is an interesting debate happening across the higher education sector as to how financial savings from strikes should be used.” He explained that University leaders needing to listen more to staff and students in any future case of strike action.
There has been no discussion from the University about whether there is potential for Cardiff University students to be refunded for contact time lost during the period of strike action. Over 126,000 students had signed petitions demanding refunds from UK universities for contact time lost during the UCU strike period last year.
For some though, it is not seen as a necessary course of action now that the money saved from the strikes has gone back into education. For example, the third-year Welsh student rep concluded from her experience of increased school funding that she does not “feel that refunding students would have been at all necessary.”
In addition to this, the two students who created the 6,785-signed change.org petition asking Cardiff University specifically for either fee refunds or special consideration spoke out on this matter. Both have now graduated, with Sam Veal, a third year History student at the time of the strikes, telling Gair Rhydd: “Katie and I didn’t specifically want financial compensation. When our results came through (we have graduated now), our results had been adjusted to account for strike action. I think this was fair.”
Katie Walters, the other creator of the Cardiff petition, elaborated on this: “We received [compensation] in the form of consideration in affected modules in exam grades. Sam and I have graduated now and have no complaints about the compensation/consideration we ultimately received.”
“I think it’s good that the money was invested back into education services. It would be far too hard to split 900k between around 33,000 students as it would only be roughly £27 each at the end of the day. I think the fact they took results from affected modules into consideration is ample enough for the disruption, I definitely have not complained!”
Both Sam and Katie inferred that the University should be clearer with students and staff about what is available to students in times of strike action. Like the VP Postgraduate, they also suggested that more listening needs to be done by senior management of universities when it comes to creating a staff-supporting environment in the future.
While some have discussed the benefits of the £909,341 being redistributed across student education budgets as opposed to any refunding of students, awareness in the student body of these savings and what has happened or could happen with them appears to be lacking.