A group of University of Brighton students calling themselves the Student Lobbying Group are currently occupying room G4 at the City Campus and have been doing so since Wednesday 4th March in support of the UCU strikes currently being undertaken by staff.
The Aims of the Occupation
While the Student Lobbying Group has a core of people spearheading the efforts, it is uncertain how many people are actually taking part in the occupation as word spreads and people come and go to relieve each other. At least two people have been present in the room since the occupation started, even through Sunday when the campus was essentially completely locked off. In a statement used to present the goal of the occupation, the group makes their aims very clear:
- The UCea must concede to the demands of the UCU’s Four Fights on a national level or negotiate a fair agreement.
- The Student Union at the University of Brighton must acknowledge and endorse the strikes.*
- The University of Brighton must offer full refunds for every day of the strikes.
- The University of Brighton must address the unjust and racist treatment of Dr. Cyprian Njue.
* The Brighton Students’ Union publicly endorsed the second round of strikes before the strikes went ahead publishing this statement on the matter.
The Verse received a statement from the University responding to the Brighton student lobby group’s demands: “UCEA is a national body representing 147 Higher Education institutions in national pay negotiations with the UCU. These negotiations, aimed at arriving at a fair agreement, are ongoing. As a responsible employer, the University is already acting locally on many of the issues raised in this national dispute and is committed to working in partnership with its trades’ unions.”
The University expands on this point, highlighting recent attempts to meet the Four Fights that has caused the lecturers to go on strike:
- The University has already paid the 1.8 percent increase (worth 3.5 percent to those in the lowest grades) offered to staff this year to ensure that colleagues do not miss out financially. This is in addition to covering the costs of a £3 million a year additional contribution to its main employee final-salary pension scheme.
- The University’s gender pay gap is already below the sector average and it continues to make good progress on closing it further. For its teaching staff, the gap last year was less than 2 percent.
- The University is one of only 14 Higher Education institutions with a Race Equality Charter Bronze Award and were named as a Stonewall Top 100 employer in 2019.
- Around 95 percent of teaching staff at the University are on permanent contracts and hourly-paid lecturers account for just 1.5 percent of its annual salary bill
- Since 2017 the University has been taking steps to reduce the percentage of its academic staff with allocated workloads of more than 100 percent in most of its Schools and is taking steps to reduce this further. All academic staff already have an allowance of 20 percent of their time for research and scholarly and professional development.
- As an educational charity, any financial surpluses the University makes are reinvested to the benefit of its students and staff.
However, these changes have not been enough to avoid the strike prompting several protests, including the occupation of G4. After three days of occupying the room, the Student Lobbying Group finally succeeded in meeting with a few members of the executive board, but the meeting did not change much, as Izzy, one of the members of student lobby group, explains: “There were several points that we brought up in that meeting and for the most part they were dismantled. They brushed a lot of things under the carpet, they refused to talk about a few things […] and [said] that there was very little they could do with regards to what we would like to happen. As a result, we came back here and felt a bit discouraged, so a few of us considered ending the occupation. But we decided out of solidarity that it would be better for us to continue to put pressure on the university because that is the best thing we can do and the only thing we can do. And if there is something we can do then we should be doing it.”
In response to the occupation Ken Young, the Head of Communications within the University of Brighton, states “The welfare of our students is our top priority and we have been providing ongoing support to those four students occupying a room in our Grand Parade building. This includes ensuring that they are safe and have access to food, water and toilet facilities. Senior colleagues, including representatives of the University’s senior management, have met with the students to address their demands.”
Hunger Striking Student
In an attempt to put even more pressure on the University to comply with the demands of the lobbying group, one member of the group has gone on a hunger strike, which started at midnight on Sunday and will continue until the end of the strike – whenever this might be. This has certainly caught the attention of the University, with multiple people from different groups within the University showing up at the occupation expressing concern for the wellbeing of the hunger-striking individual: “We’ve had like 8 people come in here telling us that they are worried. We won’t tell them who it is that is hunger striking, because we think they might try to extract the individual if they find out who it is. So every time they come in we just tell them that we’ll make sure to relay their message to the person.” The Verse’s reporter spoke directly to the individual on hunger strike, who assured us that they were perfectly well at the time of the interview.
The Case of Dr. Cyprian Njue
One of the goals of the lobby group is to oppose what they see as the unfair treatment of Dr. Cyprian Njue, a black Student Support and Guidance Tutor (SSGT). UCU Brighton say the University has threatened to sack him on the basis that the working relationship between him and his managers has “irretrievably broken down”. Dr. Njue is Chair of the University’s Race and Faith Staff network, as well as sitting on the Race Equality Charter Mark group which “aims to address the disadvantages suffered by black students and staff”. UCU Brighton say “Cyprian has a record of standing up to bullying by managers and some colleagues motivated by conscious or unconscious bias against him because of his ethnicity.” They have started a petition opposing Dr. Njue’s sacking. Ken Young states that “The University has not received any complaints from Dr Cyprian Njue in relation to discrimination including that based on the protected characteristic of race other than what he has publicly stated within the public domain in recent days. If we receive any complaints of this nature we consider them very seriously and the University has a clearly stated zero-tolerance approach to bullying, harassment and victimisation in any form and we are committed to tackling this at all levels of the institution.”
Financial Pressure – the Only Way?
Supporting the striking staff is a main goal for the group, but they are also lobbying for reimbursement of lost contact time for students, many of whom experience their education suffering because of the strikes, as Joshua from the group explains: “According to the consumers rights act 2015 we are entitled to a fair amount more than £200 which is what the University offers people kicking up a fuss as a sort of hush money. But we shouldn’t have to know these things. They should be offering us the money directly. I’ve been talking to people who started a formal complaint in December about the strikes last year and they still haven’t gotten any money. The thing is, we are trying to get a degree and possibly have jobs and trying to do x, y, and z and then on top of that also having that stress of trying to get compensation for an education that we pay £9250 for every year. The University is not making it any easier with this convoluted complaint system they’ve set up where you don’t even get a fraction of what you’ve lost.” According to the calculations done by the lobby group each student at the University has lost £1,321.43 worth of tuition fees during the 22 days of striking in this academic year (19/20) due to lack of teaching. As Joshua argues: “If they are going to treat us like consumers then surely we should be treated with the respect most companies give their costumers and offer refunds when their customers buy things that are broken.”
However, it is important to point out that the group is not doing the occupation for money, as member Ramona explains: “Obviously we care most about the moral implications. Financial compensation is a way to make up for the strikes, but I think we [as students] need to be careful of how much we use the consumer rhetoric, because we aren’t occupying so we can get money, that’s not why we are here. We are here mainly for the lecturers.” However, applying pressure financially to the University could be argued to be the most effective way to create the changes the group is lobbying for: “It should be education before profit. But the only way we can get their attention is by hitting them in the wallet because saying that they have a moral obligation to look after the wellbeing of their students and looking after their staff clearly doesn’t do the job.”
But on the matter of reimbursement for lost contact time, the University claims that only 206 out of 2603 lecturers and staff members went on strike in December and as such the majority of students remain unaffected by the strikes. Ken Young, the Head of Communications, states that “The majority of teaching in most of our academic Schools has been going ahead as normal during the strike action. Where this has not been the case the University has been taking steps to mitigate the impact on students to ensure that none of them are materially disadvantaged in terms of learning opportunities, assessments, progression and outcomes. Any student at the University who feels that their learning experience has been materially affected by the strike action is able to raise a formal complaint. Payments are being offered to students through this process where appropriate.” At the time of publication the University are planning on sticking to their individual complaint system, rather than reimbursing all students as a general approach.
With the UCea and UCU still deep in negotiations, it is not likely that the strike will end before Friday. As for the students in G4, their message is clear: “We’re staying here until Friday or until the strikes are called off.”