Charlie Porter, Education Officer at the University of Sheffield Student Union and a member of Student Left Network, spoke about what is going on at University of Sheffield:

The name of our group is a hashtag, it’s #HEStrikesBack – we chose that name because we want to say that the strike is not just about UCU members but it’s also part of a more general fight for education. We also go by the name “Sheffield Student Worker Solidarity”.

We had an open meeting before the strike started, at which we put out a call for a solidarity committee. We swapped phone numbers and set up a WhatsApp to do the regular discussions to plan things for the roving picket, for the rally, for the actions for the rest of the week. There is a broader organising Facebook group where the decisions of the smaller committee are posted. We’re trying to have organising meetings as soon as the pickets are finished to plan for future days and evaluate the day’s events.

So far we have organised daily roving pickets. That’s a group that meets up every morning at 9am with tea and coffee and hot water flasks, music, chatting with striking workers. We’ve had a few messages from striking staff that we’ve appreciated: telling us how great it is to have loud students turning up to support on rainy picket lines. 

We’ve done teach-outs with the local UCU branch that start an hour or so after the picket lines finish. 

We held a rally with a couple of hundred people in attendance with speakers from Sheffield Hallam University, as well.

 The UCU branch and Uni management met to talk about resolving local issues surrounding the strike. The UCU branch insisted that student representatives attend this meeting: management caved after some initial resistance when UCU threatened to pull out, and we’ve had some quite productive negotiations about some local issues. We’ll report on all that when we get some results!

From what I’ve seen, student attitudes to the strike seem extremely positive. I think a lot of students realise that the current model of how Higher Education is run is completely unsustainable and relies on ever-fewer staff servicing ever-greater numbers of students, while overworked and underpaid.

Student numbers are increasing ridiculously quickly, along with international student numbers. There are fewer restrictions on fees for postgraduate students and for international students, and on student recruitment methods. Also there are fewer controls on how courses are structured, so you can just chuck a course together, throw students into the course, run it for a year, and cash in. 

In many departments there are vastly greater numbers of students being taught by the same numbers of staff as a few years ago. 

International postgraduate taught students find themselves paying going on for £25k a year. Next year the fee will be £25,800.

They’ve also reduced the English language requirements for entry, meaning that the courses no longer match up with students’ needs. Students struggle horribly through the taught sections of the course and then have terrible difficulties with the coursework. So for all that expense, people wind up leaving with a lesser qualification than they had bargained for. 

I want international students here, but I don’t want them to pay massive fees and be hyperexploited while they’re here. I think education should be free. I don’t think the way that international students are being brought over is an internationalist gesture: it’s simply that universities recognise that they can charge them huge amounts of money. And it’s not just the headline fee that’s exploitative: it’s that the university management tell international students that if they don’t sign up to £150-a-week accommodation on the spot then they won’t be able to find anywhere to live. I encourage students to come to the UK and study but I wish that studying in the UK was a better experience where they’re not being hyperexploited.

A lot of our international students who are paying these extortionate fees are very concerned about where this money is going if it’s not going to staff. 

Wages aren’t being paid, they’re getting no contact time… So where is their cash going? It’s a symptom of marketisation that many people’s first concern is: “I’m not getting my money’s worth”, rather than “why is the person who is teaching me being forced into striking?”

Some students are just glad of some time off. For a lot of people, the political culture of striking and so on is completely new. While we’ve been “roving”, we’ve been delivering leaflets that explain “what is a strike, what is a picket, what is a trade union” – you can’t assume knowledge of trade unions any more as many students, both home and international students, won’t have seen it… But the French students know what’s going on! 

Some people are concerned that the impact of the strike isn’t hitting the university so hard financially. Some students have made calls for fee refunds, in solidarity with the UCU, seeing it as a means of putting pressure on the university. I think that’s better than a consumerist angle on things, saying “you owe me this much money”. I think the more people know about the strike, the more they tend to agree with it. So the work at the moment is educating people about what’s happening. A lot of people don’t understand that lecturers and professional services staff aren’t being paid to be on strike!

On 30 November, Student Left Network is hosting a summit of local student-worker solidarity groups in Sheffield. I’m happy and excited that this meeting is happening here in Sheffield because I think it’s what the movement needs. We need to not just think about local issues but get a grip on things nationally.

Immediately, there needs to be more national coordination that takes up the energy of the local dispute: like the occupations in Strathclyde and Edinburgh. There’s a lot of energy in local campuses but we need to take that energy national. It’s national policy that ultimately changed universities into the businesses they are today, rather than being the fault of individual institutions. That’s not to say that local management haven’t welcomed the changes towards commodification. We need local actions with national coordination to put pressure on legislators, while creating more instances of student-worker solidarity activism more generally, and free education activism more generally, so that it can be exported to institutions that don’t have local groups.

As for NUS: it seems to be doing better than last time – which isn’t hard – but it’s quite disconnected from anything grassroots. The NUS finds it very easy to talk to sabbatical officers. But there are a lot of sabbatical officers at a lot of Student Unions who are not involved in any kind of student-worker solidarity. The NUS is not a membership organisation – the members are students unions. There’s a block in that sense. But even where there isn’t a block and sabbatical officers are cooperating, the NUS lacks the scope to organise in a way that’s relevant to students. It doesn’t do anything radical enough for students to know or care. Since NUS Extra was rebranded, I think a lot of students don’t even know the NUS still exists.

There have been some communications from the NUS that are a lot more positive than during the last UCU dispute. But I’m not sure how that’s translated into concrete action and I’m not sure who that has reached. It’s been handy for the UCU to be able to say, “The NUS supports us!” But I don’t know who really thinks that’s relevant, as it’s not clear that students do. There is a disconnect between NUS and students at large, which means that they have very little sway in supporting the strike. If the last lot of NUS FTOs supported the strike, it had zero effect on what student activist groups did. Now they’re saying that they’re more supportive but it’s also not clear what effect that is having.

Follow HE Strikes Back Sheffield here.