Members of the local Labour Party shared coffee, donuts and solidarity with members of the University & College Union on strike today at the University of Kent, Canterbury. As the strike over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme moves into another week, staff on the picket remained upbeat and thankful for the support they had recieved from students, members of the public and other unions on site.
In the drizzle, Labour activists, walked around the site, stopping to chat with staff standing outside of their individual departments. Outside Elliot College the picket had a party vibe with loud music and costumed protestors dancing to keep warm. Decked in their lab coats, science staff acknowledged how they felt their stand was the first of many which would be needed to protect pensions in the public services and made a wider statement that high quality teaching should be at the heart of the university experience at time when many universities were focussing on grand building plans which scored highly in the ‘student experience’ survey and helped attract international students with inflated fees.
Many spoke positively about how refreshing it was to see their MP at the public launch of the strike several weeks ago and openly discussed their support for Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees and introduce a National Education Service where education is an inalienable right and not a commodity available only to the highest bidder.
Outside the School for Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSR) and the Law School, large groups of students were also in attendance to show their support. One student, I spoke to said, “in my home country, I would never think of going on a protest but here I feel safe. I feel safe because my lecturers care about what happens to me, and so I care about what happens to them”. Whilst some students felt that the protest was a felt this was a natural evolution of their stand against the ‘rising cost of education’, this was not always the case, with smaller schools such as the School of Anthropology, reporting that the support they recieved was often because of the respect they had amongst their classes. The fight, said one history lecturer, was both “for pensions and our students education and when you speak to people they mainly understand that.”
In contrast to initial statements from the university which threatened to withdraw “100%” of the pay for striking staff, Professor Karen Cox, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Kent published a joint statement with President of the Students Union and UCU acknowledging that the pension administrator USS had not had “sufficient discussion of the nature of the risks inherent in the scheme” with all parties and calling on them to resolve the strike in a timely manner. The statement, said one union branch officer, was even the more powerful because it was signed off by three women. “Those hit hardest by the strike have been hourly lecturers who are disproportionally female and those without a second household income from outside the education sector”.
Last week the local party made a donation to the UCU’s strike fund to provide support to those going without wages. We have encouraged members to do the same and donations can be made online at www.ucu.org.uk/fightingfund