You may have noticed something on the news about a 'lecturers'' strike - it's actually not just lecturers, but researchers and all sorts of academic staff, working mainly in pre-1992 universities. They've been on strike from last Thursday to today, and then will be again from next Monday to Thursday, and all of the week after that. The strike is over proposed changes to our pension scheme, shifting it from being a defined benefit scheme, under which, crudely, you know what you're going to get, to a 'defined contribution' scheme, where (even more crudely) the final amount is at the mercy of the stock market. It's also about arguments over the valuation of the scheme, and the significance of its deficit. I don't fully understand it, and I've been trying really hard. But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that this is a bad thing, I'm still not striking.
Every one of my colleagues who is on strike has an automated email reply with a link to the UCU website to say why they are on strike. They are all over Twitter saying why they are on strike. They have picket lines (9 am - 11 am) at which they will tell you why they are on strike. They have stalls in the Students' Union to say why they are on strike. But I have nowhere to say why I'm not on strike. And I want to say. I want to say it loud and proud. I'm not creeping, cowed, into work. I'm not ashamed of being a 'scab', covering for my striking colleagues. I am working proudly, wholeheartedly, and bloody hard. And I am not doing it because I am a right wing bastard. I'm not doing it because I want to destroy the trade union movement. I'm not doing it for the money or for popularity. I'm doing it because it is the right thing to do.
I am doing it because a defined benefit pension is a middle class, public sector, privilege that is not available to the majority of workers in this country, and I cannot in all conscience strike to defend my and my colleagues' middle class privilege at the expense of my mostly working class students. My students are people from all sorts of backgrounds and histories who are trying to improve their lives and their prospects through getting a degree; because they're not from comfortable middle class backgrounds with the support for education and the cultural capital that brings, because they often didn't get the chance to do A Levels or stay on at school, we provide a Foundation Year so that they can hit the ground running and be the equal of their eighteen-year-old peers when they start their degree. It's something I'm immensely proud to be involved with, but which also carries great responsibility.
These students haven't just invested money in their education. Although older students, from working class backgrounds, are more likely to be put off by the idea of debt than conventional students, despite the fact that they may never have to repay it, for me this isn't even the biggest issue. Much more important is the fact that they have turned their lives upside down to come to university. They have given up jobs and replaced wages with maintenance loans; or they are working all hours at the same time as studying; they're seeing less of their children and putting their relationships under strain and even conflict. They are defying and overcoming the significant mental, emotional and physical health barriers that previously kept them out of education. In many cases they are putting their very sense of identity on the line. They are doing this to grasp the opportunity of the sort of education that most of those on the picket lines took for granted.
The least I can do is to turn up to teach them. The least I can do is to do my very best to ensure that their investment of money and time and effort and self is not dismissed as being of less importance than the size of my pension.