Building Broad Bases: Staff – Student Solidarity in Higher Education

Zac @zlarkham14

Higher education in England is going through a difficult period right now with redundancies threatened at universities of Liverpool and Leicester, and (as there should be), strikes resisting those redundancies. Strikes like these are necessary, but often only involve striking staff and the odd lefty student.

It should go without saying that movements are stronger when they build a broad base of support and get more people involved. At universities campaigns, whether led by students or staff, should always aim to involve as many members of the university as possible. That means reaching out and building movements with other groups and their interests in mind. If the students aren’t with striking lecturers you can bet management will try their best to turn them against staff, like when Sheffield Hallam’s Vice-Chancellor asked students to spy on striking lecturers in 2019. When university management drives a wedge between staff and students and pretend we have little in common they play divide and conquer. 

Management’s worst fear is a united front of students and staff, unified against the injustices in higher education. So imagine if there was a way to involve the thousands of students at universities in a strike or any other action. The answer is building solidarity between students and staff, but this will not appear out of thin air and needs proactive steps taken by students and staff to strengthen relations, instead of hoping the usual faces will come out in support of the next strike or protest.

This year’s revival of the student movement manifested in rent and fee strikes, occupations and new activist groups springing up on campuses across the country. This shows that we are willing and capable of taking on our universities. The most successful of these protests have worked closely with campus unions like UCU, UNISON and Unite. Organisers explicitly talked about the importance and their desire to build relationships with staff and encouraged other rent strikes and fee strikes to reach out to their local union branches. 

During the 2018 UCU strikes, 61% of students supported the strikes, rising to 66% at striking universities. However, the most pressure came from students who carried out over twenty occupations, many of them done explicitly by groups aiming to show solidarity and support with striking staff. These actions should always be reciprocal, when students launch future rent strikes, occupations and protests about the things they care about, the UCU and campus unions should be there right alongside them because students will notice it. When students know they have the full support of their local UCU branch it empowers them to take action, knowing they will be backed to the hilt by members of the university across campus. Armed with the knowledge that university staff are their friends and supporters, not enemies, support from students can be expected in future strikes at your university *if* the work is put in to build relationships and solidarity across campus.

Students and staff need to be creating networks that can last longer than a three-year undergraduate degree and have a long term vision for creating change at their university.

So how do we do that, and how can we build groups and structures that foster solidarity and don’t disappear when students and key activists move on at the end of their degree? Students and staff need to be creating networks that can last longer than a three-year undergraduate degree and have a long term vision for creating change at their university. One way this has been attempted has been at a number of, mostly, Russell group universities where Staff-Student solidarity groups have been started. These coalitions between students, activist groups and campus unions mean expertise, knowledge and work can be shared to fight for what we all want- a university that works for staff and students, not the Vice-Chancellors on six-figure salaries. Ideally, this could be done through Students’ Unions (SUs) but where SUs have been infiltrated by management, it’s up to student activists and staff to set up systems where we can work together to resist university bosses.

Edinburgh’s Staff Student Solidarity Network produce bulletins, leaflets, reports and organise teach-outs and mass meetings for people there to think about how they can work together to build a better university. One of the most recent solidarity groups is at the University of Manchester which arose from the now infamous occupation and successful rent strike which saw £21m returned to student tenants in halls. Continuing the momentum, UCU members and student activists came together to put collective demands on the university and create a group where students and staff could collaborate and share information and expertise to help each other in their respective struggles.

Reaching out and talking to the other side can also help develop some sort of understanding of what life is like in different positions at university, and help remind everyone that staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions. When staff are overworked and burnt out they can’t give us their full attention and teach to the best of their ability. I started the Sheffield Hallam rent strike in December and when our committee met with the UCU branch reps we described the terrible conditions in our halls, they were shocked with one member exclaiming that some of our rents were more than her mortgage! Conversely, we had no idea how difficult teaching staff have found it this year, let alone the many problems with zero-hour contracts, excessive administrative work, and low pay that already existed. There can often be preconceptions and assumptions made about students by staff and vice-versa but coming together and talking about it shattered many of those, more of the same can only be expected to foster stronger sympathies. Solidarity initiatives like the successful one at Edinburgh can provide forums for such discussions outside of lectures. Forming networks for solidarity between staff and students at universities create the space to have discussions about what to fight and how to fight it. It sets up formal structures outside of the university to create a way for students and staff to have enlightening conversations that break down misconceptions and prejudices about the other.

The relationship between students and staff at universities is arguably the most important one and the best way to keep that healthy is by working together on issues we care about.

When university structures fail to do the work that ensures we have a happy and safe life at university, existing solidarity between staff and students should be used to find a resolution together and to fight for solutions to be implemented. At Sheffield Hallam University this year, lecturers in the Computing department produced a report that found there had been 126 cases of sexual harassment in just two terms. When it was shared with us, the rent strike organisers who had been campaigning on this issue for the previous five months, the report was promptly leaked to the press. This didn’t happen by accident. We had spent months talking to our local UCU branch about our rent strike and when they heard we were occupying a building to protest sexual harassment among other things, they and other lecturers offered their full support having heard our demands and sent us the report. The collaboration that came through building solidarity between student activists and the UCU meant university management had to sit up and listen to us. Activists and lecturers are now working on a university-wide report that will expose managements’ neglect of this issue. I think it will terrify management when they see our findings. Doing the hard work to gather data, process it and come up with suggestions for changes in policy like this can only be done when we put our heads together because we haven’t been able to rely on management to do this sort of work. Some dedicated investigation into sexual harassment and sharing of resources by students and staff is enough to send chills down the spine of any Vice-Chancellor because let’s be honest, Sheffield Hallam is not a special case and you could find similar results to the same survey at any university.

This logic doesn’t have to be limited to Higher Education either, the Pimlico Academy protests this year showed this. Shortly after students walked out in protest against racist policies at the school, The Guardian reported staff were considering going on strike. Staff and students, whilst they could not explicitly say so due to laws around striking, were clearly united against the headteacher and school’s senior management team. When staff and students stand together, they win together. The relationship between students and staff at universities is arguably the most important one and the best way to keep that healthy is by working together on issues we care about, showing we care about each other and supporting each other. This means starting groups and initiatives like the solidarity networks already at so many universities and ensuring those groups can continue as each cohort of students joins and leaves. 

The change we want to see in universities will not happen through legislation, nor will it happen through our management’s own goodwill, at least not in the near future. Solidarity isn’t an event, it’s an ongoing process and students and staff being proactive in building it will be the answer to forming movements and organisations that can create the universities we want to study and work in.

Zac Larkham @zlarkham14 is a first-year Applied Social Science student at Sheffield Hallam University. This past year he’s been deeply involved with student activism, starting a rent strike at Hallam and coordinating with other student activists across the country.

If anyone would like to work with Zac on 101 guide to staff-student solidarity in universities, get in touch. Some of the student movement under the name Red Square Movement will be running a session at The World Transformed this September and want to put out some pamphlets like this.

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