In the deep midwinter

So, we’re striking here in the UK.

Obviously, it’s not the weather for it, but that’s not really the point. Instead, the scale of the changes being proposed by universities to the national pension scheme calls for a strong response.

Part of that response is education. I’ve now been part of several discussions with people who didn’t realise that striking means not getting paid, for example.

One key group to involve in this education is students. My department, as well as many others I’m aware of, has organised meetings prior to the strike action, to allow students to ask whatever questions they might have.

Just to make the point, this matters for several reasons.

Firstly, students are the group most affected by strikes: their growing weight in universities’ calculations (through student satisfaction surveys and consumerisation of education, it must be noted) mean that it through disruption of classes that the staff union sees the most effective leverage.

Secondly, students are part of the university community. Even if they weren’t directly affected, they work in symbiosis with staff, so it’s important they can feel they understand what’s going on. With universities focusing on messages solely on the efforts to minimise disruption of classes, there’s a communication gap that deserves to be filled.

And thirdly, one of the key messages of higher education is surely that we never stop learning.

Casting my mind back a few years, our department was threatened with extensive cutbacks, as part of an organisational review. You, the academic community, done sterling work in giving support in opposing this, but just as important was the role our students played. The thoughtfulness and informed nature of their interventions proved not only very helpful in the specific instance, but also in giving them a learning moment. We still see the echoes of that with those students still with us.

And so it is here. Our meetings with students have been marked by them talking through the issues themselves, rather than just taking what we say.

Our students don’t all agree a common line on the strike, and that’s fine, because we now feel much more confident that they are discussing from a position of reflection and understanding.

Civics doesn’t have the same kind of tradition it does in the US, but moments like these should remind us that we are all part of a society and of a polity: if we don’t act, then others will act for (or on) us.

It should also make us think about the conditions under which cooperation makes more sense than competition: that alone is more than enough for a day on the picket line.

UPDATE – Here’s a piece that captures much better these points.