As the UCU has voted across the UK in favour of strike action before Christmas, it won’t come as a shock to students that more of their degrees have been interrupted following previous 2019/2020 strikes and a deadly pandemic which enforced them to continue the “university experience” at home. I had hoped to have a relatively normal final year at QUB with as little disruption as possible so the fact that there will be strike action is regrettable, but here we are, I’ve decided that I’m going to support it.
For those of you who know me, you’ll understand that I’m not a revolutionary figure myself. I am by no means radical. But demanding the end of casualisation in the world of higher education is by no means radical either. If the strikes do go ahead, I’ll be swapping the comfort of the classroom for my unnatural home of the picket line outside the main university building.
As I approach the end of my time as an undergraduate, I’m cherishing the final months of being in the classroom. The buzz of the seminar room experience cannot be replicated elsewhere. Standing on the landing of those University Square 19th Century style houses, the small talk before entering class with your classmates, asking if you’ve done the reading, the shy smiles of students emerging from the classroom you’re about to enter. Now it’s your turn. The rush to the seat which you always land yourself in week upon week without fail, the teacher walking in wearing a pair of shoes you haven’t yet seen them wear, coffee in hand, notebook too, watching as they try to remember their computer login details. And then comes the learning. The long lengthy lecture which you must pay attention to, you never know when they’ll ask you a question mid-sentence, stay alert, you have done the reading and all you need to do is bring that information back to the front of your memory. You can feel the energy of the room too, there’s an element of solidarity with your comrade students if none of you understand a concept at the start of the lecture, and then when the answer and understanding both dawn on you, your eyes are opened. The short discussions with your peers, the hope that you’re sitting next to someone on your wavelength, or perhaps someone who isn’t quite but adds an alternative perspective to the exchange. Some are even strategic and ensure that they’re next to people who they like to talk with in anticipation of a discussion. The feedback to the room, the buzz of giving a “good” answer which the teacher lavishes, the awkwardness of being told that you’re not quite correct, you nod, smile, even laugh and quickly hope for the rest of the lecture to resume to remove the spotlight from you; from my description you can probably tell which experience I’ve had more of. Or when you don’t have any answers to a question and you stall for time, staring at your book or screen in expectation of the answer to magically appear and rescue you from your ignorance.
Though overall the classroom experience for me is a positive one, we must take a short break as there is a larger issue at play. The classroom culture cannot remain intact when the people who manage this environment aren’t being treated fairly. As students, we must support the guardians of this aspect of university life by supporting staff, consequently supporting the strike. Though staff are striking for multiple issues, there is one which has affected students the most: casual contracts. Casual contracts are used by QUB and other UK universities to employ staff for a short amount of time to meet demand, before letting them go and forcing them to find positions elsewhere. Each year I’ve had talented lecturers move to Northern Ireland from afar, settle into QUB, build a relationship with students, create university specific lecture material and just when they are a fully integrated member of our university, their contract ends and they’re off. The following year a new member of staff on the same contract will replace them and the cycle restarts. This fluctuation of teachers, uneven standards and quite frankly simple disruption does not serve in the interest of students. We need consistency, we need teachers to stay in our departments for longer periods so they can continue to develop themselves too, we need personal tutors to build relationships with, instead of starting afresh every September. We must also appreciate staff who cannot strike due to financial reasons, these are often staff from abroad who work as teaching assistants. Though this isn’t the first strike, and probably won’t be the last, I’m willing to play my part in supporting it.
Jon Nield is a final year student of French and Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast. He is interested in literature, sociolinguistics, education and politics.