Brighton Students’ Union chose not to support the UCU strikes without a vote. Undemocratic or do students just not care?
The University and College Union (UCU) went on strike for 8 days from 25th November until 4th December across 60 universities in the U.K over pay and pensions. The strikes were nationwide, with students at the University of Liverpool barricading the offices of senior management after being warned that joining their striking lecturers on picket lines was “unlawful”.
The National Union of Students (NUS) supported the strikes stating in their official video ‘’we just can’t afford to be neutral, being neutral means that your voice is being disenfranchised and co-opted’’.
However, Brighton Students’ Union are facing backlash for their decision to not support the strikes. On their website BSU state “Brighton Students’ Union recognise the right to take industrial action to improve working conditions for employees. However, it is very apparent that 8 days of strike action will have a detrimental impact on the student experience.” Later on following the backlash they added “Individually, students are obviously very welcome to form their own views.”
They also state “Brighton Students’ Union is affiliated to NUS, but we are an independent organisation and therefore are not directed by them. Due to the length of the strike action (8 days), it is felt that there will be a very immediate impact on many of our students, and that is not something that we are able to agree with.”
Felicity Mitchell, head of OIA warned that the lack of staff might cause problems for students with disabilities or mental health issues. “Many students will be very concerned about the impact that this industrial action will have on their studies,” she said in a statement. “Not all students will be affected in the same way. For example, some disabled students, some students with mental health issues, and some international students may be more severely affected. Providers need to think carefully about additional measures they might need to take to support those students.”
However, the UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We will not be lectured about a duty of care to students by the people who are responsible for these circumstances and who have the power to do something about them. Senior managers need to stop pretending that striking staff are the problem and work harder to resolve this dispute.”
The BSU say they wanted to stay neutral as they “did not feel that the majority of our students felt strongly one way or another”. The fact that only around 2,000 out of 21,000 students participated in the last officer election supports the claim that the majority of Brighton students are uninterested in Students’ Union politics.
The BSU have stated on their website “we support societies whose core aims and objectives are politically charged, to internally vote and release their position on the strike, but condone societies releasing an opinion on any political matters if they were not founded for that basis”. This means that many societies are prohibited from taking a stance on the strikes if their aims and objectives are not “politically charged”. The president of the Feminist Society, Martha Prudence, attended several meetings so that the Feminist Society could be permitted to form a stance on the strikes especially given that the gender gap is a primary feminist issue.
In a Facebook post by student and School Academic Organiser Rachael Baylis (which has now been published on Student Left Network) titled ‘BSU Doesn’t speak for us’, she claimed that upon reading the BSU’s statement about the strikes and requesting a meeting with the SU president, she asked how the decision to not support the strikes was made and he informed her that it was through focus groups which Rachael claims ‘is definitely not representative of the student body’. Not being satisfied with this, Racheal requested statistics from the BSU president and did not receive a reply. A few days later she asked the VP in person and was told that the decision was actually made by the 4 elected officers.
The Verse asked the BSU President about the decision to not back the strikes before Rachael released her post. He told us “We did not conduct “focus groups” as such, but instead our Student Voice team went out and spoke with individual students on campus in order to gage the general consensus. As a result of this feedback, the SU drafted the statement that can be found on our website.” Following backlash the SU amended their statement adding:
Racheal argues ‘’students are denied the opportunity to actually have their voice represented’’ and that the ‘’student union lied to students’’. On the post, students voiced their anger at the SU. Victor added “This union claims to represent us but stifles discussion and lies about going to us for our opinions.” While George commented ‘’I think the behaviour of Brighton Students’ Union has been completely abhorrent with regards to the strike. Their blatant disregard for the opinions and positions of individual societies and their members is now evident. I really do hope there is a full inquiry into this matter very soon’’.
This backlash has led to negative reviews of the BSU on Google.
Although the pickets have now stopped the UCU have stated “union members will begin ‘action short of a strike’”. This involves working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action. This is set to continue until April 2020.