Students working while hidden in plain view

While delegates from the University and College Union (UCU) held their annual congress in Glasgow over the holiday weekend last week, few noticed the ‘full time’ students working hard at Glasgow’s SECC venue. Although the delegates gave up their bank holiday weekend to attend on behalf of their members across the UK, it might be forgotten that the working students also had to forgo the bank holiday break. It seems the students moved in the background and were ‘hidden in plain sight’. Yet the UCU proceedings over three days offered plenty of support for students, unseen by them and informed by media reports that focussed on division.

The highlight of the congress was a dinner event that served as a ‘thank you’ to delegates.  It was the first held since the pandemic lockdown. These are selfless people in the main who are unpaid and regularly give up their spare time to help fellow staff and lecturers in what can be a punishing caseload. The ongoing work helping fellow staff grinds on in the background of every workplace where the union is active. This facet of union activity rarely gets a mention in the media that is more interested in industrial action and conflict, something that surfaces on occasions to grab headlines. But for many academics and other staff, the union has been a saviour when they find themselves in trouble. This is more critical practical support in times of trouble and less words of wisdom and ‘let it be’. The considerable activity is hidden behind a veil of confidentiality, multiplied many times over across the UK and not seen beyond a few involved.

Hidden in plain view.

Most people who attend such events fail to notice the staff serving them.  The congress dinner delegates, a few hundred from all over the UK, were no different.  I spoke to some of the staff serving the tables and confirmed that most were students from Glasgow. One student from India said that all the staff were students, including the young man in charge.  He also thought, but I could not confirm, that they were all students from outside and UK and from Glasgow University.  This replicated exactly the same situation I found at the last ‘in person’ congress dinner in Manchester in 2018. There, all the students working on the night were reported as students and from Manchester metropolitan University.

While most universities offer valuable advice about part-time jobs, Glasgow University goes a little further and acts as an ‘employment agency’ recruiting students for local employers.  Its ‘Student Job Hub’ advertises “part-time vacancies and place the adverts all in one place”.  Foreign students can be offered up to 20 hours per week in term time.  Currently, amongst many others, there is a position for a ‘Weekend Dishwasher’ in a local restaurant. This is hardly valuable work experience and is only bound to restrict  studying and cramp any social life in the modern ‘student experience’.

The university, along with others, is conspiring in the promotion of a two-tier student experience with those working part-time getting the short straw.

The employers.

These tend to be the ones that ‘value flexible working’ and students can be hired as an when needed. A major hotel is a good example of this approach. The desk at the hotel I stayed in confirmed that they always employed a mixture of part-time employees as students and full-time staff.

The congress dinner itself was held at the Crowne Plaza hotel function room that was the only one nearby large enough for the number of delegates.  This hotel is part of the British-based Inter-Continental Hotels Group (IHG). They are no stranger to controversy over their alleged anti-union stance and the Unite union went as far as reporting them to the UN for their behaviour in 2019, ‘Holiday Inn owner, IHG reported to United Nations Global Compact for ‘unethical’ anti-trade union behaviour’. Part-time employees might just have to accept what they are offered.  The IHG response to the pandemic closer to home was widely criticised in 2021 as, ‘Luxury Edinburgh hotel blasted over ‘mass fire and rehire’ tactic amid pandemic’. According to Unite, hotels in Glasgow and Edinburgh were involved and “the hotel chain cited closure of both hotels as reasoning to sack staff but re-opened a few weeks later and offered some workers their jobs back on short-hour contracts”. Ouch!

The media focus.

This is regularly confined to any signs of division or conflict. Anna Fazackerley in the Guardian observed disagreements about the UCU approach to the current industrial action with, ‘It would be a betrayal to back down now’: university pay row reaches new level of acrimony’

However, Andrew Tettenborn, Professor of Law, UKIP supporter and regular contributor to the right wing press, offered a more caustic view in the Spectator with his offering, ‘The university union may be beyond redemption’. His conclusion was that,

“UCU has been gently taken over by activists more interested in revolution than rational thought, and frankly at times rather obtuse”.

This was a highly biased report of the congress that ignored the majority of the debates.  Even superficial perusal of the UCU Congress web site reveals plenty of rational thought. Some of this revolved around better support for students, the impact of Covid and countering increased workloads.  These issues might be better addressed in a more balanced commentary.

What mostly goes on.

For example, the report of the education committee reinforced a long-standing commitment to supporting students and staff with,

“access to all types of post compulsory education; student funding; preventing attacks on the curriculum and freedom of speech; and the professional needs of staff”. 

All quite rational.

On student support, the Scottish retired members’ branch moved a motion in the main congress that mandates UCU to review its overall policy on students with,

“Congress notes: The evidence that students across the UK are facing a deepening financial crisis is mounting fast. Several surveys across the UK, including the National Union of Students, reveal the widespread extent of the problem. This is impacting the ability of students to study effectively and widens further the generational inequality. The NUS student cost of living report of September 2022 concluded, “Unless government and the sector takes action, further and higher education will become closed once again to all but the most ‘typical’ and privileged”.

Congress urges: UCU to review its existing student policies regarding finance, equality and widening participation. In addition, UCU should review the evidence, identify any shortfall in its position, and work more closely with the National Union of Students across the UK to ensure implementation of the necessary changes over the next three years”.

This arose from a deep worry about the worsening situation in which students find themselves and a deepening generational inequality. It was carried unanimously.

Another good example arose, amongst others, in the Higher Education (HE) sector conference. A composite motion from several universities on student distribution and HE funding was also carried overwhelmingly. It had one eye on a new government and called for a radical rethink on how HE is managed with,

“The UK and devolved governments must reintroduce a managed system of student distribution begin a high-profile campaign for the better management and distribution of students numbers across all HEIs to protect jobs via the reintroduction of student distribution this coming year, including branch resources, intense lobbying efforts, and media across the sector based on fairness and equality”. 

UCU has regularly worked to support both staff and their students over recent years, going back to the introduction of higher fees over 10 years ago and the subsequent removal of maintenance grants. However, there must be a renewed effort to take the initiative. It was somewhat ironic that so many students at the wrong end of a two tier system also had to serve the lecturers. The time is right to look again at what can be achieved for equity and fairness with a new government waiting in the wings.  It is something all staff can fall in behind and is not so much a political position but a practical and rational approach to a major problem.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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