Interview: Cambridge Defend Education

Sophie Macdonald 23 February 2022
Image Credit: Cambridge Defend Education

Following the University Council’s decision to reject UCU’s proposal on the USS pension scheme on Monday (21/02/2022), a group of over 50 students from Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) and other groups, occupied the Sidgwick Lecture Block on Tuesday morning (22/02/2022). This comes after a week of strike action, with picket lines surrounding Sidgwick which most students, whether in show of solidarity or hesitancy, have resisted crossing.

The occupying students have released a list of seven demands, among them calls for the University of Cambridge to “commit to negotiating a comprehensive recognition agreement with UCU that includes all categories of staff”; “meet the demands of the Justice for College Supervisors campaign, including a pay rise, secure contracts, and paid training for all supervisors”; and a guarantee that “students and workers face no disciplinary measures for taking part in peaceful direct action, including the occupation, in support of the strikes”. The Cambridge Student spoke to three of these occupiers, who wish to remain anonymous.

the real disruption to our education is not the strikes, but the marketisation of higher education.

“Because staff at this University deserve better,” began one striker, before continuing “UCU workers are on strike not because they want to be, but because the current system of higher education is failing its staff and students”. Regardless of a growing disgruntlement among students who, affected by the impacts of COVID-19,  have already faced so much educational disruption, this striker contests that “the real disruption to our education is not the strikes, but the marketisation of higher education.” Expanding on this, another striker told The Cambridge Student that staff are “forced [to strike] because of the unsustainable, profit-driven, education system”. They also insist that “the educational impact of a handful of missed teaching hours is far less disruptive than the increasingly precarious and underpaying working conditions created by a marketised higher education system.”

As the Sidgwick lecture block was already being picketed, the strikers contextualised their choice to occupy it. “The lecture block was occupied by students in 2006 to protest the introduction of top-up fees,” explains this striker who firmly believes that “in occupying this building sixteen years later, we are part of a tradition of students resisting the marketisation of higher education”. Taking strike action again in 2020, CDE carried out a hard blockade of Old Schools before beginning a ten-day occultation a week later. This achieved a commitment from Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope to begin the process of recognising the Cambridge UCU. However, Cambridge remains the only public university in the UK to not recognise UCU. Another striker asserts that occupying a lecture block reminds them “of the shared fight of student and staff against University management”.

Image Credit: Cambridge Defend Education

The strikers believe that “by flying banners out of the window by the picket line we are expressing student support,” and aim to “force University Management to refocus their attention from profit and marketisation to centres of learning in the university.”

Although there is a growing concern on online platforms, such as Camfess, that the only people these strikes are directly disadvantaging are students, this striker comments that “the impact of lectures being moved online is minimal when compared to the systematic failings we, and our striking staff, are fighting against.” Another striker confirms that “these strikes are pushing for the bare minimum required to make the university sustainable for its staff and students, and we will settle for no less”. All three strikers also told The Cambridge Student that they do not believe that anti-strike discourse on Camfess can be taken as a true representation of student opinion. However, they do claim that “many students and staff that cross picket lines think the strikes do not affect them, and can be ignored”. “By holding a building in the middle of a picketed site,” these strikers believe they are “disrupt[ing] the bubble – countering the idea that strike action is something that stands outside of their place of study and work.”

want to express that another university is possible: one where staff, students, and the local community are put before profit

They believe that, for far too long, “University Management have prioritised profit over staff working conditions, and student learning conditions”. By taking over the lecture block, they endeavour to “start the process of reclaiming the university for ourselves.” As the strikers understand it, their “occupation sends a clear message: University Management and UUK have ignored the demands of students and workers for far too long.” They “want to express that another university is possible: one where staff, students, and the local community are put before profit.” On Friday (18/02/2022), Toope stated that if the UUK’s proposal for pension cuts “turned out to be the only viable option it should only be implemented for the minimum amount of time while an alternative and better value scheme was put in place.” Toope also outlined his call “for work to be begin immediately on a redesigned scheme” to be “implemented within the next 12-18 months”. The Vice-Chancellor also regretted that, despite frequently meeting and speaking with people on the picket line during past period of industrial action, this “has not happened so far this year.”

The strikers claim they  “will not leave the building until the University agrees to meet our demands.” They are willing to stay “for as long as it takes.” The strikers reported “no direct response” from the University thus far.