University strikes: Students face punishment after supporting staff walkouts

Eleanor Busby, Gina Gambetta
People outside the University of Glasgow after members of the University and College Union begin an eight-day strike in rows over pay, conditions and pensions: PA

Students who have backed lecturers on strike have been threatened with punitive action by universities.

Thousands of staff at 74 universities across the country began 14 days of walkouts this week in a long-running dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions.

Winchester University told students that it was not considering reducing their tuition fees or issuing them with compensation after the students’ union came out in support of strike action.

And 13 Stirling University students have been suspended from campus for eight weeks after taking part in an occupation in solidarity with striking staff last term.

They fear they could be made homeless, or could be forced to resit exams, following the decision. The university said they would not be made homeless during the disciplinary process or any appeals.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) began their second wave of walkouts this academic year on Thursday. It is due to last until 13 March and has seen lessons and lectures cancelled.

It comes after tens of thousands of workers took part in eight days of walkouts at 60 universities at the end of 2019.

This week, students from Stirling University were told they faced suspension after they occupied a university management building for two weeks in November in support of striking UCU members.

Lauren Harper, a first-year student who faces suspension, told The Independent: “They have not taken into account the mental health of us students. The suspension effectively isolates us from social aspects of student life, as well as meaning we are not allowed to submit our work.

“This is something that is distressing to many members of the occupation who may now have to repeat a year or even drop out.”

The 18-year-old added: “We are living with the uncertainty that management and the student discipline will decide to evict us. This will effectively make us homeless, some students who are facing this come from Bath, Ireland and Germany so it would leave them in a horrible position.”

However, their suspension has not stopped their support of university staff striking. Many of the group stood in solidarity with workers at Strathclyde University and Glasgow University of Art on Friday.

A petition “condemning” the punishment by Stirling University has been signed by nearly 2,500 people.

Winchester University has also come under fire for a statement on their intranet site earlier this week which said: “Based on current information, including the fact that Winchester Student Union supports the strike action, the university is not considering any form of reduction in fees or compensation.”

Megan Ball, president of Winchester Students’ Union, said she was “appalled and disgusted” at the message. “Our support of these strikes has absolutely no bearing on their ability to reimburse,” she said.

Following criticism online, the university has removed the statement from their “frequently asked questions” on the strike action. It is now keeping the question of compensation “under review”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: “People are rightly angry at this bizarre attempt from the university to force students to denounce the strike action. Winchester students, like their contemporaries across the UK, have been magnificent in showing their support for their striking staff.

“Students have genuine concerns about the conditions their staff work under and for a university to try and weaponise those concerns is contemptible.

“Universities need to understand that the way to get these disputes sorted out is by talking to us, not threatening their staff or students.”

On the action taken by Stirling University, Ms Grady added: “Students are entitled to engage in peaceful demonstrations and should not be penalised for having opinions.

“Rather than looking to take punitive action against their own students the university should be concentrating its efforts on trying to force a resolution to the disputes.”

A Stirling University spokesperson said they took action against the students after fire doors were locked during the occupation, which broke fire regulations.

They said: “The university respects the rights of students to make their voices heard. However, this must be done safely and in accordance with fire, and health and safety, legislation, as well as university regulation.

“The safety and wellbeing of our university community is of paramount importance, and the fire risk posed has been a central consideration during the disciplinary process.

"While that process and any appeals continue, no students involved are required to vacate university accommodation.”