By Aidan Lomas – Editor-in-Chief
Queen’s University Belfast have released a statement to the Gown regarding the potential strike action at the end of this calendar year. As many of our readers will know, these strikes are something I am against both here in Northern Ireland but also in the wider UK. This opposition isn’t routed from a place of anti-trade unionism, nor disagreement with the right of staff to be treated with respect and dignity in their workplace; it’s simply the case that the last thing fee-paying students need following a year of pandemic restrictions, not to mention a failed strike before that, is yet another strike which will see them stripped of their education without many of them ever seeing the benefits.
“The University & College Union (UCU) are currently undertaking a ballot of their members to ascertain support, or otherwise, for industrial action. The issues in dispute are negotiated nationally not locally. The University continues to work closely with all of its recognised Trade Unions.
Should Queen’s members of UCU make the decision to support this national call for industrial action, the University will seek to mitigate the impact on affected students.”Queen’s University Belfast
Whilst the University is correct in asserting the nation-wide nature of the UCU strikes, there are three other things about this statement that really stand out to me. The first is that the majority of words here are information about what’s happening and how the University deals with these things. Whilst I don’t want to insult any of our readers who may previously have been unaware, I nevertheless imagine, for the most part, that the first 42 words convey an understanding already known to students at Queens; the UCU strike is national, and the University to and in some degree must deal with its staff and their union representatives. Congratulations QUB, you just perfectly demonstrated a prime example of time – or more accurately words – wasting.
The second, however, is less to the discredit of QUB. “The university will seek to mitigate the impact on affected students”. This to me is interesting; it is interesting because of the fact that, so far as I am aware, this is the only statement relating to the strikes which actually references students here at QUB. It’s remarkable to me, considering the reality that the University must take their own share of the blame in all this, that the University, not the Students Union, are the ones referencing students. Will this mitigation occur? It’s unclear; but at least someone’s – at the very least pretending – to see the reckless disrespect being posed towards students.
The third relates to the first. “The issues in dispute are negotiated nationally not locally”. The arms-length approach to the UCU ballot is something which brings me a degree of concern. We’re all aware of why QUB staff, as well as their UK-wide colleagues, are being asked to support strike action; it’s because their employers are evidenced as being in the mindset of their predecessors – those predecessors in question being those around the time of the stone age. What I’m getting at here, is that the University’s statement seems to display a degree of “It’s the other Universities, blame them!”. Is it not true that many of QUB’s employees are on casual contracts which render them, in the wider scheme of things, on below minimum wage? Is that a national or local issue I wonder? Perhaps Queen’s Students could rest easy – knowing that staff and students can still attend their classes and tutorials, etc, etc come the end of the calendar year – if they knew the University had recognised their responsibility and made at least some concessions to staff and their representatives.
In previous issues, readers may have felt that I was placing the entirety of my blame on the SU. I apologise if this appears to have been the case. For them, I place a blame for not taking a position, and instead seemingly avoiding the subject all together; you may recall I labelled this as cowardice. Without wanting to bore readers, allow me to reaffirm that I am not particularly bothered which way the SU President and her colleagues would like to stand; I’m merely bothered that they won’t. It’s a position I stand by, but nevertheless, must also be fair in recognising that the strike-saga and its consequences are not the sole blame of the Union or staff. When it was publicly alleged that “the Press hates us”, my immediate reaction was one of “no we don’t, we’re just incredibly disappointed and disillusioned”. Again, this is a position I stand by. I hope, meanwhile, that in the following words, the readers of the Gown can understand the other destination of my frustration; the University itself.
The 14th of September 2019 was supposed to be the start of a new chapter in my life; I had left the North of England and made my way across the Irish sea to start a fresh in Northern Ireland. Queens had, at least at the time, appeared to be the best fit for me as a student, and I was unequivocally excited to start my three-year course. However, despite my best efforts to outright ignore it, it became clear to me that Queens is not the best university; I have, rather worryingly, found myself on common occasion wondering what would have been had I enrolled at one of my other options. The strike action of 2019-20, remembered for being unsuccessful in my mind, was the first time I began to ponder; I knew Queen’s University weren’t alone in their managerial mistreatments, but they were, nevertheless, responsible for the staff and other employees at their university. Now, in what feels like a century later, we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. On the one hand, I would be discouraged to see the staff members – the ones I know to have been alleged to have performed ‘sub-par’ for their struggling students during the lockdown, at least – be given the satisfaction of asking those same students to protest in their interest; an interest which will benefit students, but not the current ones. But on the other hand, the failure of some does not translate to the failings of all. As I have mentioned previously, the majority of the tutors and lecturers I had during the pandemic went above and beyond to ensure that myself and my peers had the best possible education during the pandemic era; some were even kind enough to lend personal time, when such time wasn’t necessary or purposeful, as they simply recognised that feeling in touch with the University was what some students, like myself, needed.
But what do students need now? Well, Robert Murtagh tried to – but failed to – convey exactly what students need; his belief was that supporting the strike was leadership. I respectfully disagreed and still do. They need leadership, but, when you’re paying thousands, you expect leaders to avoid catastrophe, not bank on it. The University and its contemporaries now must do what they can, both nationally and locally, to ensure the strike action either doesn’t occur, or comes to swift and amicable end as soon as possible. Rather than pretending the appointment of Hillary Clinton to the office of Chancellor makes you a progressive and modern university – especially when one considers the report that QUB were heavily invested in oil, despite being a supposedly green university -, perhaps QUB can actually be a progressive university in these modern times by doing the following: pay your staff correctly, do what you can to ensure equality of opportunity, and give them a sodding pension; these are very simple, very easy means to an immeasurably preferable ends. So, I wonder why the University are refusing to do so? Is it greed? Is it a valid reason? Who knows.
Whether it’s failing to support societies like the Literific or Queen’s Radio, or whether it’s failing to answer the Gown Newspaper’s questioning, or whether it’s failing to support staff, or whether it’s failing to support the environment, it’s clear that QUB will enjoy and endure a long future of finding itself undoubtedly on the wrong side of things if this current approach to management continues. Perhaps then, and maybe I am once again being too idealistic about this, the University could take this opportunity to do the right thing; be a hero, not a villain as it were. Rather than forcing students out of your tutorial rooms and lecture theatres, can you sit down with QUB staff and talk out a deal? We’re not looking for the perfect Brexit agreement, we’re looking to enjoy a full year on campus; a full year we’re already paying for. I am not asking the University to solve world hunger, or even stop the strikes nationally, but I am asking them to put their students first. That is, after all, my own personal grievance with this whole affair; students being asked to pay, only to be ignored when the Universities are. So, where do they stand? Right in the middle of this whole affair. To use the First World War as a closing analogy, the University are currently less Brussels and more Berlin; continued managerial failings may have a similar outcome for the University too.