Ditching our work won’t get us what we want

Tim Squirrell 20 January 2015

CUSU has passed a motion to protect and support students involved in strike action in Week Five. This comes after many have disagreed over the implications of figures from the National Student Survey, showing that the majority of Cambridge students suffer 'unnecessary pressure'. This action consists of refusing to hand in work – not refusing to do it, just not handing it in – in order to highlight the unnecessary pressure put on Cambridge students by the current system, and to put pressure on the University authorities to introduce a reading week. 

I’m not sure how it does this. In general, strike action is meant to have some kind of connection, whether it be literal or metaphorical, with the conditions being protested. Refusing to work for your employer demonstrates that their business could not function without the labour it employs, and therefore they ought to appreciate that labour a deal more. Academics refusing to mark or give lectures highlights the fact that academics do a vast amount of work for comparatively little money.

Yes, that kind of action harms students who are unable to receive lectures that they’ve paid for and which often constitute a large chunk of their contact time, or they’re delayed in receiving the marks which they’ve worked so hard for. But that’s the point of that kind of strike action – it shows just how valuable the work is, and tells the employer that current conditions are unacceptable and they deserve better.

The action proposed by CDE doesn’t do that. The majority of students will likely still do their work and hand it in, and so the minority who don’t are going to end up disadvantaged, not just because they won’t have their work marked but also because they’re still going to be doing the work. With a lack of obvious symbolic significance, it's hard to see beyond the fact that students themselves will be the group most harmed by this action.

Similarly, graduate students who supervise undergraduates often put in a large amount of work to try and get them through exams, and in many cases their continuing ability to get supervising work depends on their proficiency in this capacity. If their students don’t hand their work in, it makes it harder for them to do this.

Fundamentally, those who are definitely not being harmed are the University authorities – and unfortunately, they just so happen to be the same group who hold the power to restructure term, or at least to give students a fair hearing on how Cambridge could be changed to ameliorate the situation of struggling students. This protest just doesn’t touch them. They have very little extra reason to listen – sure, some students might do worse, and that might reflect badly on the University, but in the long term, that doesn’t do much, and the University of Cambridge is one organisation that thinks very much in the long term.

In much the same vein, people who are commenting to the effect of ‘you have 28 weeks of holiday already, Cambridge is meant to be hard, just deal with it, the real world is much harder’ are wrong, and lacking in empathy. Yes, Cambridge is meant to be hard. That doesn’t mean we should accept conditions that normalise and encourage mental health problems in its students.

Indeed we should do all we can to reject these emphatically – but this action doesn't achieve that. The aim of introducing a reading week or other measures is primarily to improve the lives of disabled students at Cambridge, for whom the current system is unbearable, as well as students suffering from mental illness, or symptoms which come reasonably close to mental illness. The fact that the vast majority of students will likely continue to do their work and hand it in rather than engage in the boycott is likely indicative of a large part of the problem – us.

One of the major reasons that Cambridge has so many issues with mental health and pressure is that the students who come here are intensely competitive, hard-working and determined. There’s no way around that. It means that they’re unlikely to engage in any action which will undermine their own ability to do well, both here and in life. As long as that culture remains in place, actions like this will fail. 

Efforts to make Cambridge more bearable for the many people who struggle, and indeed fail, every year are worth our support, and worth fighting for. That's what makes actions like this so frustrating, as they fail to make any real headway towards that goal.


This article was previously published on Squirrell's own site