*Sings* (to the tune of Olivia Newton John’s ‘Physical’): Let’s get political, political, I wanna get political.
If this was a regular Tuesday morning, I would be sitting in an English Literature lecture at the time of writing this, probably not taking as many notes as I should, and maybe surreptitiously texting my friend under the desk. I’m not always a model student, in spite of being an ambitious overachiever. I could blame that on lecturers who have no stage presence, or on lecturers who don’t know how to use a powerpoint. Or I could accept responsibility and admit that sometimes I’m lazy, and that there are times when I’d rather read my four-page-long, in-depth, monthly horoscope than take notes in class. There are other occasions where I barely look up from taking notes the entire lecture because I am so absorbed by what I am learning. I am lucky to have some lecturers whom I really admire, and some classes that I absolutely love.
In my experience, most students have a love/hate relationship with university. We complain about those early morning lectures, we complain about lecturers who don’t know how to teach, we complain about getting crappy grades for essays we wrote the night before they were due in. We students like to complain a lot, and most of those complaints are pretty self-centred.
I am not in an English Literature lecture right now, because this is not a regular Tuesday morning. I have had no classes since last Wednesday. My lecturers are on strike, protesting their pensions being cut by around 40%, protesting the fact that many seminar tutors are on zero hours contracts, protesting the commercialisation of higher education. Whilst many students do seem to support the strike, there also seems to be a sentiment of “the lecturers are selfish for striking”, because it means we won’t learn some of the information we need for our assessments. And this is at the University of Glasgow, i.e., a university where the majority of students don’t pay tuition fees. Unless you’re unlucky and English, like I am, you’re probably not getting into too much debt during your time here. I’ve heard stories of students in England wanting to sue their universities to get a refund on their tuition fees. According to one source, we lose £53 per day of the strike. And, because higher education has become a commodity, this could theoretically be taken to the small claims court, because our education is a product we have bought. (Don’t cite me on this, I can’t remember where I read it).
On Friday, I went with a friend of mine to stand at the picket line and support our lecturers. Whilst we were there, a couple of my friend’s classmates came by, for all of two minutes. She was talking to them about the strike, and they made some kind of comment which I can’t actually remember, but which sounded quite bitchy. And, before I knew what I was doing, I blurted out something like “just because this doesn’t affect you, that doesn’t mean this won’t one day be you. In forty years it could be your pension on the line, and that’s why it’s important to have solidarity now, because you never know when it’ll be yourself you’re fighting for.” I was surprised by myself, because I often find it hard to speak up in defense of things, and call people out. Not because I don’t care, but because I’m anxious and it’s easier to avoid conflict. But it’s something I’ve been working on recently.
There’s this poem by the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, called “first they came…”, about people in Nazi Germany who did not speak out because they were not the ones being persecuted, and how by the time those people being persecuted, there was no one left to speak up for them. I don’t want to be the kind of person who sits on the sidelines during situations of injustice. Yes, I know that lecturers having their pensions cut is not the same as what that poem refers to, not by a long shot. But the sentiment is the same. People don’t care until it affects them. People are selfish. I don’t want to be selfish. I want to be someone who stands against injustice. It’s the reason I’ve been vegan for nearly two years, and it’s the reason why I support this strike. Just because something doesn’t directly impact me, it doesn’t mean I’m not obligated to stand up against the powers that be.
Students, right now your voice has more power than your lecturers’ voices do. Higher education has become a consumer commodity, and we are the consumers. This means that we hold more power over the universities than their staff do, because we are their customers. This is why we must stand with our lecturers, whether literally (e.g. standing at the picket line with them), or virtually (e.g. signing petitions, emailing the powers that be and encouraging them to do the right thing and not make these pension cuts).
Guess what: this isn’t about us.. It’s not our futures on the line, it’s not us who will suffer. But we are the ones who have the power to make change. We must show solidarity! We live in a time where every action is political, and the lack of action is political too. Abstaining from politics is a political action. And apathy is contagious. Right now you may be indifferent to the plight of your lecturers, but what will you be indifferent to next time? Where does one draw the line on what they should care about? What criteria makes some people eligible for compassion, but not others?
Walk a mile in your lecturers’ shoes. Imagine having your future being sacrificed for the financial gain of the elite. Imagine not knowing if you’ll ever be able to retire, because your pension won’t be able to support you.
If these cuts go ahead, do you think that will be the end of it? These are not the first cuts, and they will not be the last. Look at how tuition fees have risen in the past few years. A friend of mine who’s in 4th year pays £7,000 a year. I’m in 2nd year and I pay £9,000 a year. 1st years pay £9,250 a year. It’s not just lecturers who are being screwed over, it’s students too. (Or at least, English students). Does that not make us obligated to show solidarity? We are all on the same side. The lecturers are not selfish for striking. They’re fighting for our futures as well as their own.
If you want to be angry at someone for this strike, be angry at your universities. Be angry at the government. Be angry at our educations being transformed into consumer goods. Be angry that we students are being turned into customers. But don’t be angry at your lecturers, because they are on your side.