By Charlotte King
Last month, Gair Rhydd was contacted by an anonymous source who leaked an email sent by Cardiff University Students’ Union President, Jackie Yip. In the email, Yip said that some Cardiff University students will be unable to graduate this academic year due to ongoing University College Union (UCU) strike action.
Part of the email read: “Confidentially, further strike action will now mean some of my students will have missed so much content that they will not be able to graduate this year, even if there are mitigating actions put in place. We have not told students this as we do not want to cause panic and behind closed doors, I am doing everything I can to protect my students. I am sure this may be the case in some of your Unions.”
Last week, Gair Rhydd sat down with Jackie Yip to find out more about this leaked email, the campaign to try and ensure students will be able to graduate, and the backlash she has faced as a result of the leak.
“[The email] was never meant for public view”, Yip said. “I was incredibly disappointed that the very panic I wanted to avoid by working behind the scenes to sort this out [happened]. The time it took me to firefight this situation could have been spent sorting out things for students.”
Yip informed Gair Rhydd that she was very disappointed that the email was leaked. It was confidential, she said, and the Students’ Union has consequently spent “many hours” trying to deal with the response from students and staff alike. “I’m disappointed…This was not something that was helpful [to the SU].”
The leaked email formed part of an email chain between over 70 other SU presidents across the UK, all of whom are facing UCU strike action at their own universities. We asked Jackie Yip why she felt comfortable sharing the fact that some students might not be able to graduate with over 70 people via email, but was not willing to tell students themselves.
“We were 70 unions all trying to write a letter to pressure those negotiating to compromise with the UCU, and we expressed in our chain how concerned we were for the nuances of the letter … This is why I was so frustrated, because the email was taken completely out of context.
“You trust your counterparts across the country because you’re all going through the same thing. It’s just disappointing that [it was my email] that was chosen.”
In light of this, we asked Yip whether there were emails from other SU Presidents expressing similar concerns regarding graduation and learning outcomes. Yip did not confirm or deny that this was true, saying “we all expressed some very personal concerns and sentiments.”
In our search to discover if the possibility of students not graduating is true, Yip informed Gair Rhydd that the SU and the University are both planning for the “worst-case scenario.” She stressed that at this point, everyone is unsure what the full impact of strike action will be but the Union is working to plan for every scenario so that they are “fully aware of how to support students” if the worst happens.
“Like I said”, Yip continued, “time was taken away from doing that by firefighting [the leaked email]. The University has openly said now that they’re going to make sure all students can graduate and I’m going to happily hold them to that and make sure students are not compromised in any way.”
So, what are the Union doing to work with Cardiff University and UCU to prevent a situation where students cannot graduate? The SU President told Gair Rhydd that a lot of time, she hears comments from people saying she should be putting more pressure on management “which is fascinating [because] the whole year has been spent putting pressure on management.”
Yip said that it has been “a very interesting dynamic”, working with both the University and UCU as mandated by last year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). The Students’ Union has primarily been doing a lot of ‘hosting work’, she said, for example working with UCU to create bogs on ‘a day in the life of a lecturer’, hosting forums with Postgraduate Research students, and holding banner making sessions. However, the President said the Union is also continuing to lobby management and improve communication channels between the University and UCU “behind closed doors.”
In the leaked email, the SU President also commented that as per last year’s AGM, she is mandated to support the strike action “despite [her] own personal opinions regarding the matter.” Numerous UCU members have suggested that if universities across the UK do not cede to their demands following the current bout of strikes, they could re-ballot for further strike action later in this academic year which could create a situation where students are unable to graduate.
When asked if she thought it was fair that students are caught in the crossfire of this ongoing dispute, Jackie Yip said: “What I think is fair and what I’ve been mandated to do have to be different things. My duty is to support [the strike action] and I will support it unless told otherwise, so this is the trap. I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.
“I can only do what the students want me to do; they want me to support this so that’s what I’ll have to do wholeheartedly.”
Continuing to speak about whether she finds it hard to navigate between her personal views on the strikes and her mandate to support them Yip exclaimed “Oh yeah! How do you support maximum impact while simultaneously minimising it?”
Since the email was leaked, Jackie Yip has not only been met with panic from some students but also with criticism. Cardiff Students Supporting the Strike, a group of Cardiff University students supporting the UCU strike action, called on the SU President to reconsider her position.
Shortly after the leak, they posted a statement online which said: “The assertion that students will not graduate as a result of strike action – without any evidence to support this – is dangerously irresponsible.
“If [Jackie Yip] is not comfortable representing the democratic mandate given to her by the student body, then she should consider her position.”
Speaking about this backlash, Yip told Gair Rhydd: “I love a good keyboard warrior … I welcome people to have a conversation with me before they go and say these things.
“It’s not nice … Certainly, when I had conversations with [Cardiff Students Support the Strike] afterwards they said ‘no, we didn’t mean it, we didn’t mean it like that’ and actually, words mean things. When you say things like that, no matter whether you think it’s professional or not, there’s a human being sat here going ‘Woah, I was only trying my best!’”
In response to Yip’s comments, Cardiff Students Support the Strike have said: “As Yip knows, our group has been tireless in providing support, visiting picket lines, speaking at rallies, attending meets and creating content; we have had no help in this.
“Until after the email leak, she neglected to meet us despite commitments to do so. Our small group of volunteers have exhausted themselves, so the insinuation that our members are simply ‘keyboard warriors’ is as insulting as it is patently untrue.
“We’ll continue in our efforts to support students and stand by our statement that she should consider her position if she will not uphold the mandate.”
Last week, it was announced that an Extraordinary Members Meeting (EMM) has been called following a student-led petition in order to reopen discussions around the Students’ Union’s mandate to support the UCU strike action.
Gair Rhydd asked Jackie Yip whether she believes the SU’s current mandate could be overturned. “I don’t know”, she said. “People have seen strike action now, but I couldn’t tell you what the thoughts and feelings of the student body are relating to the EGM and I don’t think I have enough understanding to predict how this motion will sway.”
The EMM is being held on Tuesday 10 March at 7:30pm in the Great Hall of the SU. All Cardiff University students are able to attend. Both Jackie Yip and Cardiff Students Support the Strike are encouraging students to attend.
There are three tabled motions to be debated. The first is titled “Cardiff SU must support further strike action” and calls on the SU to ensure sabbatical officers join staff in lobbying the University and should not undermine the motion if it differs from their personal opinions.
The second motion, titled “Supporting the interests of all students during industrial action”, demands the SU represents the interests of all students at the University and continue to lobby for fee reimbursements for lost contact hours.
The final motion is titled “Cardiff Students’ Union should support students during periods of industrial action” and calls on the SU to provide a Strike Desk in the Union on strike days, provide extra mental health services around exam times, and inform students of the negotiating progress made nationally and locally regarding the strikes, amongst other demands.
Ultimately, it appears that there is still ambiguity surrounding whether some students will not be able to graduate at the end of the academic year, but Yip reassures Gair Rhydd that the University and the SU are planning for this worst-case scenario.