Image: Mubanga Mweemba

Earlier this year, the University and College Union (UCU) had announced that industrial action would take place during a four-week period commencing 22 February of this year. The strikes were contesting the proposed reforms that would see significant reductions in university staff pension schemes. The strike continued for that entire period, where lecturers and university staff refused to work, disrupting the very fabric of the university. Productivity and exertion were emptied out of the structures and systems of the higher education.

Before the strikes had begun, several lecturers had spoken to their students about the implication this action would have on their education. The understanding was that the strikes would not go on for as long as they did and each week, the futures of thousands of students were held aloft.

For fourteen days university was cancelled. But it would be remiss to think that those who were on strike were idle. In fact the spirit of learning, teaching, and the symbiotic exchange that forms the very cornerstones of knowledge, were at large. A new future was being propagated. The picket lines ran in earnest throughout the entirety of the industrial action. Though unproductive in their employed labour within the university, those on the picket lines knew how to keep themselves occupied.

it would be remiss to think that those who were on strike were idle

People were performing music, knitting and teaching others to knit, drawing, and writing— there was even the tongue-in-cheek marking of the email sent by the VC to staff. There was a Billy Bragg concert and marches through the streets of Exeter. There were tables of food prepared for those standing outside and a blow-up dinosaur reigning as a mascot for solidarity. The picket lines were places where the productivity that occurred couldn’t be capitalised.

To stand outside for hours on end, to know that abstaining from work will mean deductions in your pay, to be uncertain about the future, both imminent and distant, was made possible by three salient characteristics: tenacity, sacrifice, and hope. It requires faith— faith that is born from the strength of a community so the burden that is shared can be halved and lightened. It becomes more difficult to silence the myriad of voices contributing to a chorus.

In that chorus you would also find students, making it known that they were in support of the strikes. Besides the occupation of Northcote by Exeter students, Wednesday 14th March saw the Forum play host to Exeter University’s Silent Sit Down Protest led and organised by two second year students, Charlotte Scobie and Beatriz Moita.  Both students registered the necessity to make the overall student support more visible; although many supported the strike, there was uncertainty as to how to express solidarity.

The idea for the sit down was developed less than a day before the event took place. It’s inception- a Facebook event page that mobilised one of the most impactful student reactions to strikes across the last few weeks. The offer-holder day saw hundreds of potential students exposed to the current climate of higher education, and allowed a new image of student-lecturer dynamic to be demonstrated.

At 12.00pm, the group consisting of over one hundred participants from various faculties collectively hushed the Forum, occupying a large area by sitting down in unison. The group remained silent whilst holding banners and posters, which proclaimed their solidarity with the UCU strike as well as protesting against the commodification of education. Several lecturers joined students by sitting or standing as spectators, and after a total of 20 minutes of silent unison, the group arose.

The students were met with a raging applause from both fellow students and staff, and concluded with a composed dispersal. The protest itself made visible the active student support and displayed the power of a unified stance as one body. Those behind the movement, as well as its participants, showed a dignified response towards their affected education. The event revealed that by participating in a peaceful protest, and by remaining seated, one can take a stand.

But the series of events that happened outside of the university also maintain a profound role in the industrial action effort. On February 28 and March 14, organised by English lecturers Dr Chris Campbell and Dr Peter Riley teach out became a prominent form of staying occupied in academia during the strike. Held in St Davids Church, the teach outs were a configuration of university activity outside the usual confines of the university space. The first was titled “Pop-Up English Department”, a five-hour event which consisted of a variety of speeches from different academics. The event took the following order: Treasa De Loughry on “Precarious Labour”; Michael Finn on “University and State”; Regenia Gagnier on “Neoliberal Life and Work”; Mark Steven on “Strike Writing”; Helen Hanson on “Creative Labour”; Laura Salisbury on “Striking an Waiting.”

by participating in a peaceful protest, and by remaining seated, one can make a stand

The “Pop-Up English Department” did not restrict itself to the immediate issues that underpinned the arguments of the UCU. Discussions navigated the current state of higher education as a whole; delving into the finer details of the treatment and conditions of university staff that are financially and occupationally vulnerable. Conversations also commented on the experience of students, who have seem to have the carrot of their futures dangling in front of them, but the stick that is the pressure to be exceptionally successful looming overhead.

The first of the teach outs brought up discussions on precarious labour and job insecurity within academia, the intersection of creativity and protest, the conditions of living under a neoliberal society, the culture of stress and the insistence on competition within the university structure.

The second teach out, titled “Pop Up Humanities” brought in a wider selection of speakers outside of the English Department delving into departments and disciplines such as Geography, Modern Languages and Film but continued to develop ideas that were brought up in the first event. This event unfolded as follows: Jen Bagelman, Sarah Ader and Yujia Xu on “Picket Pedagogy”; Emily Lygo on “Learning at a Time of Crisis”; Debra Ramsay on “The Politics of the Middle”; and Alicia Williamson on “Occupy! & Prefigurative Politics.”

“Pop-up Humanities” brought up similar conversations as the former event, discussing generational relationships and the dynamics of student-lecturer interactions, how learning and lessons can often occur outside of the classroom, how we can start dismantling the structures that have atomised and divided the individual, and the practicing of an advocacy that begins with small scale individual acts and actions.

Both events welcomed free discussion, the ability to feedback in a form that broke down standardised teaching dynamics and valued all opinions. Although speakers stood at the front of the church, discussions dispersed into the congregation, where everyone was welcome to voice their thoughts and experiences.

The pop-up events were generous experiences and created a space and time for people to step away from a life that is often dictated by forces beyond our control. In fact we were gaining, or rather reclaiming, autonomy; reinstating value in what often doesn’t have the room to exist in our day-to-day lives.

everyone was welcome to voice their thoughts and experiences

For a brief, yet momentous moment, students and staff reclaimed what was stolen. The cut in pensions is only a symptom of a much larger issue—about who owns the University and the defiling of our institutions as a whole. What has been sacrificed – willingly or with great refusal – for the university we currently have? We, as students, came here to learn, but our identity as workers – as consumers – has become more important than our duty as citizens. The strikes allowed us to remind ourselves of that truth, to learn even though our classes were cancelled. Yet how could have University been cancelled? Is it because these values – sincerity, generosity and empathy – do not result in anything that could be reduced to a credit, to a currency? The things that matter to us, they are too large to capture, too sprawling to manage. The only option is to live inside of it, to be present, to take in the world every day and hope to change it.

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