Value for money or solidarity? International students weigh in on the UCU strikes

Photographed by Josiah Wang

From 14 February, three weeks of University College Union (UCU) strikes hit campus, the second wave of this academic year. For students in departments with striking academics, there has been a barrage of cancelled classes, lectures, and uncovered content. Whilst the academic fallout is felt by all, international students are in a particularly tough spot. With the exorbitant fees they pay on the one hand, and the demands of their teachers for fair pay on the other, what do international students make of the UCU strikes?

“Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” is a popular phrase strikers use, and it’s one of the first things Mariapia, a postgrad student from the US, says when I meet her for coffee. “It’s the university’s responsibility to meet the demands that staff are requiring whether it’s pay, pensions or their working conditions,” she says.

“These things are necessary…to gain the momentum for the universities to meet the UCU’s demands,” she says when I bring up the criticism from many that the strikes are impacting students too much. It’s clear a lack of unionisation and culture of striking in the US has left an impression on Mariapia: “I understand the importance of collective action, and I think it’s essential to meet the collective’s needs. In the US, this doesn’t happen, and you see the consequences. You see increasing workloads, staff shortages, and that’s exactly what the strikes are aiming to negate here.”

There is broad student support for the strikes, as indicated by two SU votes on the issue, which include international students like Mariapia. But there is also clear discontent from many internationals who empathise with the UCU’s demands but think their education is being sacrificed for the strikes, a view that is reflected across the student body. One student anonymously told The Beaver: “I do understand the teacher’s frustrations, but I do not respect it as they really are thinking for themselves, not for the student[s]. The university’s actions have been appalling, but the ones who could have helped us were these teachers, and now they have decided not to teach.”

While some international students blame teachers for the disruption, others blame LSE for not meeting students’ expectations. “LSE as an institution needs to do better in providing a better educational experience without compromising the wellbeing of the people who provide it and contribute [to] it. Combined with reading weeks, the strike essentially cut off a whole month from the term, meaning students only study for two months in total. Even if LSE prefers to treat itself as more of an enterprise than an educational institution, the price point of the astronomical tuition fee does not match the service given,” another student tells us. Gaby, a General Course student from China, says: “You know, as international students, we pay a very high fee to get here and we don’t have class, we don’t have any feedback [as a result of the strikes]” – but she adds that she holds LSE responsible for not responding to the demands of the strikers.

Mariapia says that the LSE student body as a whole doesn’t lend its support to strikers as much as other London universities. Emerson, a General Course student from the US, brings in this perspective many strikers complain about: “As a General Course student, I don’t necessarily feel completely involved in this whole situation, especially because it doesn’t affect my department. On a total basis, yes I support people trying to improve their working conditions [but] I don’t necessarily support the way they’re going about it because it’s just negatively impacting students and not impacting anything else.” He adds, “Everyone’s here to learn… and actively trying to impede that doesn’t feel right.”

Everyone not fully supporting the strikes that I’ve talked to said that the strikes should hit the university, not the students. “I think there are better ways,” Emerson says, adding: “I don’t know what they are, but I would prefer not to have people’s learning impacted.” He tells me that “students have a finite amount of time that they get to learn, and by not teaching it’s not impacting the School’s revenue generation. The School’s still benefiting in the same way and the only thing that’s happening is that the students whose teachers are striking aren’t getting the same benefit they’re paying for.”

When I put the students’ criticism of the strikes to Mariapia, she says: “That’s the real problem for social movements like this, particularly at the university level because the nature is so transient so a lot of people remain very individualised in their mindset. [They think] ‘Well I pay this much money, I’m not getting what I should get out of it’ because they’re not going to see the returns… Maybe they’ll return back to their country, or go somewhere else or stay here but they won’t be a student any longer. But at the end of the day, it has a long-term impact on future students, on the continuing financialisation of higher education.”

It seems there is a wide range of opinions from international students about the strikes. An open letter circulating on group chats has called for LSE to respond to demands from strikers. In that sense, the dramatic image many strikers paint of selfish students only caring for themselves is often more temperate. Many support the strikes or at least sympathise with the cause of the strikers and hold LSE responsible while also trying to gain the education they pay for. While strikers may not be entirely happy with the support they get from LSE students, students are in a tough position, caught between their teachers’ demands and their own education and tuition fees. It’s clear these two things are going to keep proving difficult to reconcile as the pay dispute continues.

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