The importance of the academic strikes, and why economics students need to support our lecturers:
As a student, staring down the barrel of deadlines, knowing exams march ever closer, the idea of losing access to important lecturers (if only briefly) can be deeply frustrating. We pay large sums of money to the university, incur huge amounts of debt and dedicate countless hours to study. Losing access to part of our education, through no fault of our own, might seem truly unfair. The academic strikes planned for this term will affect your degree, that is an unfortunate fact.
I’m a student too; I have these same exact concerns. Despite this, I think it’s incredibly important that we, as a student body, support our lecturers in this. Our academia and our education system can only suffer if we don’t take a stand to respect our lecturers’ labour.
If you’re interested in a purely descriptive article on the strikes, the Palatinate have a good one here:
Why should I care?
If you are negatively impacted by this strike, that should immediately tell you something: the labour of your lecturers is valuable to you. For students to have a functional education, we need hard-working and clever people to teach us. They need to be trained, qualified, and understand the subject matter at a high level. If nothing else, for our degree to impress employers, we need to be able to demonstrate that we learned from some truly bright people.
Unfortunately, things like the proposed pension fund changes means being an academic is increasingly an unforgiving role. While the tremendous rise in higher education enrolment should be celebrated, funding and support for lecturers and tutors has not risen commensurably. Our lecturers and tutors are increasingly expected to shoulder more and more work without any proportional compensation. If you’ve ever had a lecturer take too long to answer an email, it’s not because they want you to suffer; but because they are overworked and answering your email is just one of a hundred other things they need to do.
This in turn reduces the quality of our education. If you’ve ever gotten an assignment back with minimal feedback, again it’s not because your tutors don’t care, it’s probably because they had 200 essays to grade in a week. It would be impossible to give you the kind of feedback you need given their time constraint. Time crunches mean that they have less time for office hours or to respond to emails. These conditions matter because most academics earn far less at university than they otherwise would in the private sector, given their skills and qualifications. If we continue to degrade their labour and compensation, the ability of universities to attract and keep good talent will continue to decline. For our universities to provide a good education, we must respect and support the labour of our lecturers. That means supporting actions like the UCU strike and voicing our support.
Why does it matter for economics education?
Personally, one of the criticisms of economics education I think is most important is the role of textbook learning in curriculums. Students are expected to blindly operate models, using rote memorization and abstract maths over critical thinking and analysis. The models we’re taught are by no means invalid, but when we are never asked to examine them thoroughly we don’t do them justice. We are insufficiently trained in real-world analysis. These same modules often teach exclusively from one or two textbooks, where the only criticisms are those the author is willing to include.
These problems exist for a reason, often related directly to the constrained resources of academics. Exams which purely require students to operate models or mathematical formulas are far less time consuming to mark than long essays. Multiple choice questions take a few seconds to check, but assessing critical analysis takes a great deal more time and mental effort. When lecturers know that 350+ students will take the compulsory economics modules there is incredible pressure to write exams which never require you to be critical. When academics are simultaneously under pressure to be working on their own research, designing a curriculum around a single textbook frees up much needed time to work on other obligations.
If we want reform in the way that economics is taught, it will inevitably require more labour from our lecturers and tutors. More time spent marking, designing curriculums and responding to students in a meaningful way. We need to show them that we support and stand with them, that we do respect the work and value they contribute towards our education. If the pressure on our academics worsens, as it will under the UUK proposal, the factors which contribute to the stagnation of education will only get worse.
What can I do to help?
As a student your time is understandably limited, but even a little bit of support can help. Feel free to check out this list of ways you can support the strike, written by one of the teaching staff at University of Edinburgh:
Responding to Common Objections:
“My tuition fees pay for an education, it isn’t fair that I’m being denied what I pay for”
This is a fair objection- a university education is in many ways an investment. What’s important though is that you shouldn’t place too much blame on your lecturers, it also falls to a certain extent on the Universities UK (UUK) council. Strikes are happening because negotiations came to a deadlock. The UUK council is taking steps to actively harm the livelihoods of academics, but refuses to compromise even when faced with strike action; they are just as much to blame. Your lecturers are simply trying to protect a financial guarantee which they had already been promised.
“Barely a majority turned out to vote for the strike, what about my lecturers who didn’t vote or voted against?”
It’s true that turnout was 57% with 93% approval for industrial action of some form, but that number is likely skewed against action- given the barriers lecturers face. Striking means that the workload I mentioned earlier would get even worse. More importantly many lecturers are on casualised contracts meaning they can’t claim the hours striking, and so they risk substantial financial resources by doing so. Many academics have to worry about their career prospects and job security as well, younger staff often can’t risk taking such action even if they want to. Finally, most lecturers love what they do and truly don’t want to disrupt your education, this is just an unfortunate last resort. In light of these barriers the fact that this level of support exists is impressive in itself. Those who support the strike are likely in a far greater majority than the initial poll would suggests.