By Charlotte King
Last week, the Vice-Chancellor addressed students to discuss the impacts of strike action, potential effects on graduation, and how students can receive compensation.
As of last week, a number of Cardiff University lecturers have gone on strike alongside lecturers at over 70 other higher education institutions across the UK as part of the most recent wave of University College Union (UCU) Strike action.
UCU members at Cardiff University went on strike in November 2019 for eight days to protest against how their pensions are being handled and as part of their ‘Four Fights’ against pay, workload, equality, and casualisation.
The most recent bout of strikes is the third since the 2018/2019 academic year. To provide a brief recap, UCU members are striking over pensions because claim that the average lecturer will lose £240,000 in retirement as the cost of their pension has risen whilst pay has not; they are calling for a 3% increase in pay to keep their pay rise more in line with inflation; they are demanding a 35-hour working week to mitigate high workloads; they are protesting against the continuing gender and ethnic pay gaps in higher education; and they are calling for an end to casual, zero-hour contracts.
Last week, Cardiff University Students’ Union hosted ‘Questions with the Vice Chancellor: Industrial Action Q&A’ to give Cardiff University students the opportunity to speak with Colin Riordan, the Vice Chancellor, the Students’ Union and UCU about the current wave of strike action and its impacts upon the student body. Senior staff members from the University’s three colleges – Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Biological and Life Sciences; and Physical Science and Engineering – were also in attendance.
Opening up the Q&A event, Riordan made it clear that “I personally, and the University, fully respect the right of staff to take industrial action” and stressed that the current dispute between UCU and UK universities it “by the far most complicated” he had encountered.
The event covered many different student concerns about the UCU Strike action, most notably the concern that the most recent wave of industrial action will prevent some students from being able to graduate at the end of the academic year.
The Pro Vice-Chancellors of the three Colleges all stressed that the University is working to keep communication lines open with students as strike action commences. Professor Damian Walford Davies, from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, informed students that Schools currently cannot determine what mitigating action will be taken until the effects of the strike have concluded, and said every single Academic School within the College will be impacted by the action differently.
Professor Gary Baxter, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences, however, did state that certain Schools within his College were more likely to be impacted than others, namely Psychology and Biosciences. All three Heads of Colleges stressed that students need not worry about the strikes negatively impacting upon their learning outcomes as the University will ensure exam boards are informed of the mitigating circumstances and Schools are working to ensure “alternative means of covering content” and “learning opportunities” will be made available so grade outcomes are not impacted.
At the session, Gair Rhydd enquired firstly about how the University plans to reinvest the money it will save from deducting pay from striking lecturers. It has recently been announced that Sheffield Hallam University is redirecting savings into a bursary fund for disadvantaged students. Riordan informed the floor that Cardiff University will use the money saved from industrial action to firstly pay any compensation required, and then funds left over will be given to the Schools they originally came from to be dispersed however they wish.
Gair Rhydd also questioned whether it was true that some students will not be able to graduate following the next round of strikes, to which Riordan replied: “At this stage, we’re expecting all of our students to graduate as planned. What you do is hope for the best and plan for the worst.” It was acknowledged however that if the UCU Strike action is extended beyond the current 14 day period, problems will arise.
Other questions directed at the University and UCU questioned the University’s long-term plan to prevent further strike action in the future, to which Riordan stated the only long-term solution will be found through negotiation. He stressed that this is a national dispute with over 300 employers involved so as Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, he only has so much influence.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can say that makes them more likely to want to solve this…It’s damaging for students, it’s damaging for staff, it’s damaging for universities and no one wants to be in this position.”
Another student asked the Students’ Union, since it is mandated to support the UCU Strike action, what provisions they have put in place to support students and get “all parties round the table”, to which VP Postgraduate and Chair of the Q&A session, Nick Fox, said that the Union is working closely with UCU members to educate students on the strike, are hosting strike information stalls to speak to students face to face, and the Students’ Union’s Advice department is supporting students making official complaints. However, Fox also stressed that the SU is only a “small piece in a national level puzzle” but they encourage facilitating conversation between the relevant parties behind closed doors.
Finally, one student took to the floor to enquire whether students will receive any financial compensation for content missed due to strikes, to which the Head of Registry at the University stated: “If you are dissatisfied…you need to submit a complaint” via the new complaints process set up specifically for strike-related complaints.
However, the speaker stressed that the University feels a financial remedy is only one possible outcome of the compensation process since ‘50% of tuition fees are spent on things outside of direct teaching’, such as building costs and support services which continue to be available throughout the strike period. Additionally, the University is only accepting complaints regarding strike action which occurred during the current academic year; they are not acknowledging complaints referencing the strike action which occurred in 2018, stating “matters in relation to that have been closed.”