Strike action Q&A snubs UCU

Charlotte Boulton shares her thoughts on the latest strike action controversy on campus

Charlotte Boulton
4th March 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Amidst the strike action still taking place, the University and students’ union announced a “Strike Action Q&A Session” to take place on the 2nd March. Katie Smyth, SU President, tweeted out the event information, encouraging students to submit questions in advance. However, she was met with frustration from the @NewcastleUniUCU Twitter and some of its supporters, as one questioned why there wasn’t a UCU representative invited to the Q&A.

The Q&A advertised Katie, the Vice-Chancellor Chris Day and the Academic Registrar Lucy Brackhurst as answering questions to promote “transparency between the University and the student body, and to factually answer student questions/worries/concerns”. It may seem obvious that including the teaching union responsible for the strikes in the Q&A would be a good idea, but they were not invited.

The set-up for the Q&A session was confusing; I didn’t realise it was going to be a text-based forum where the University and SU representatives were typing answers to questions online. An actual event, or at least a video livestream, was expected, which I think sparked a lot of the frustrations. If it was a discussion-style event, not including UCU would be clearly misrepresentative and biased; if you just have the VC speaking non-answers about progression in the dispute talks, you’re not going to come away that informed.

The opportunity to raise awareness of UCU’s ‘four fights’ and pensions disputes was noticeably absent

PG UCU Newcastle argued that “a union member would be most equipped to answer student questions on industrial action” and that the SU’s stance was “not neutral” if it didn’t invite someone involved directly in the strikes. A PhD student said that “PhD students who teach should be represented and you know that”, whilst a lecturer said “your approach lacks balance”, amongst other responses. There was a clear appetite for UCU involvement, which I agree with. Yes, the Q&A was intended to answer the logistical issues about industrial action forms and effects on graduations, but students also do care about the reasons behind the strikes and the opportunity to raise awareness of UCU’s ‘four fights’ and pensions disputes was noticeably absent. The University and SU can’t stay truly neutral in this politically charged situation – and they shouldn’t. Only representing one party in the debate is biased, even if you’re aiming for a purely factual response.

Ultimately, the Q&A was lacklustre and I personally would have preferred more of a discussion format with a UCU representative firmly involved to ensure all sides of the disputes are visible and accessible to all students. It felt like the University wanted to do the bare minimum to argue they had the students concerns under control. UCU were willing to engage, so why wasn’t our University?

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