Students paying for an education expect smooth terms - not strikes

Lecturers and students from both Sheffield universities have been striking over pay and conditions for staff
Lecturers and students from both Sheffield universities have been striking over pay and conditions for staff

The next two months will be a challenging time for Sheffield University students and staff as a huge wave of strike action prepares to bite higher education in the city.

A row over pensions has infuriated lecturers in the city and they are due to walk out for fourteen days over February and March.

It was a house of cards, and fell on a national scale without much success.

The university has said it will aim to keep disruption to an absolutely minimum, but students shouldn’t be too comforted by that. A walk out of this size will have a huge impact. The lecturers are specialists and their roles cannot easily be replaced; lectures and seminars will have to be cancelled left, right and centre.

The strike action will start with a two-day walk-out, slowly gaining momentum until there is a whole week in March when teaching staff will stay away from the lecture theatres. And, of course, the dispute could run and run if it is not sorted out. The prospect of more action leading into the exam season is a possibility and students currently applying for places at the university next year will be keeping a close eye on developments.

Changes to pension contributions are not something new to the education sector. A few years ago, school teachers went on strike because their monthly payments were increased, at the same time as final payments were delayed and reduced.

Strike action was held, schools around the country were shut, protests were held in the centre of Sheffield. And the union action got nowhere. The changes were still made and teachers eventually lost their appetite to lose a day’s pay in a strike.

Lecturers looking to finish this dispute with a better outcome will need to heed the mistakes made by teaching unions in primary and secondary schools.

They may well feel that the changes being proposed are Draconian, but they’ll need to be prepared for a resilient couple of months. Cracks began appearing in the battle for pensions in Sheffield schools almost as soon as it had begun.

One or two of the union members at the school I worked at decided they were not going to lose out on a day’s pay because the school was still going to shut and they could clear some marking while still getting paid. As soon as word gets about that this was happening, other teachers started to wonder why they were sacrificing their day’s pay when others were taking the easy option.

It was a house of cards, and fell on a national scale. Nobody likes taking strike action. It’s costly for the individual and it damages the people that matter most to everyone in the profession – the students. It’s with a heavy heart that people in education go on strike, be they teachers or lecturers, but sometimes the good will of the many is stretched to breaking point and in this case the straw snapping the camel’s back is pensions.

A strike at a university, however, is different from a strike at a school for one main reason – the students at a school are not paying for their education. Not directly, at any rate.

There will be thousands of students in Sheffield affected by the strike during the next two months and they are all paying thousands of pounds a year to undertake their course.

The students and their parents have the right to expect a university course costing £27,000 over three years to run very smoothly indeed.

They do not expect an eight-week period of cancelled lectures, when disruption may be minimised but the standard of learning will almost certainly be compromised. And there will be some parents who, quite rightly, will be asking the university for financial compensation for any disruption in the form of a reduction in fees. Clearly a compromise may be needed to find a way forward, as is often the case in employment disputes.

All parties had better get on with finding this way forward as soon as possible, getting around the table and coming to an agreement before the strike period is in full swing. We have to look after our lecturers in a safe and secure way while ensuring the financial future of the university is guaranteed.

But we also have a responsibility to look after the young students who have left their homes and arrived in Sheffield to further their education and invest substantially in our city.