Reps' Monthly Higher Education Update
This is a monthly update for our Reps on what has been happening in higher education. In this update we look at back at some of the things that took place in November 2019: strikes, tensions between students from Hong Kong and China,
Academics at universities in the UK have gone on strike, picketing universities and cancelling lectures. Thousands of students across the country have been affected.
Over 70% of members of the University and College Union (UCU), the union representing staff at universities, colleges, prisons and adult education centres, voted for industrial action in November and early December.
Members of Coventry’s branch of the UCU say that university staff are given too many tasks in addition to their teaching responsibilities. These extra tasks can involve unrealistic targets that staff must meet with limited resources and time; they can be tedious and unrelated to their role, meant to be completed in a short space of time and involving plenty of paperwork.
There is simply not enough money available to increase lecturers' salaries, universities have said in response. Some universities add that they have already given staff members a rise in their wages or a greater contribution to their pensions - the strikers' demands are just going too far.
Students across the country have different opinions about the strikes. Some students support the strikers, saying that their lecturers are being mistreated. Other students are frustrated with the strikes, as it means that their lectures could be cancelled. For some students, this is a violation of contract – they have paid handsomely for an education that they are not receiving.
This year’s strike follows industrial action last year, which began in the middle of a long-running dispute over academics’ pensions.
Have you been affected by the strikes? Do you support the striking staff?
CUSU remains neutral in the debate over the UCU strikes.
Hong Kong protests
In the wake of protests and civil unrest in Hong Kong, students from Hong Kong have clashed with Chinese students on several British campuses this month.
At several universities in the UK, Hong Kong students have been asked to remove printed material that reported the alleged abuse of Hong Kong’s people at the hands of the Chinese government.
This month, security services at the University of Warwick removed a “Lennon wall” that had been placed on a campus wall by students from Hong Kong. The “Lennon wall” displayed an image of a cartoon pig, something that has been reproduced by several protesters in Hong Kong. Chinese students had complained that the “Lennon wall” was racist.
There have been protests in Hong Kong in response to a bill introduced by the Chinese government, which would permit the government to extradite criminal suspects to the mainland. The bill is no longer being considered, but protests continue as Hongkongers speak out against perceived mistreatment from the Chinese government.
Protests have turned violent and both sides have accused the other of brutality. While student societies clashed on British campuses, students attempted to escape the Hong Kong Polytechnic University through the city sewers. The University had been surrounded by armed police waiting to arrest people on the campus for rioting.
Early in November, a British government committee warned that there was evidence of interference in UK academic freedom and campus affairs by the Chinese government.
What do you think about the debate? Was it right to remove the “Lennon wall”?
Something to confess?
At many British universities, students enjoy scrolling through fellow students’ anonymous “confessions” on social media pages. These sorts of confessions can range from stories about students’ mistakes and accidents to their sex lives, drug use and drunken adventures on nights out.
Things didn’t go well this month for ExeHonestly, the anonymous confessions page at Exeter University, when allegedly far-right, Nazi material found its way to the page. The page administrators, all students at Exeter University, blamed poor mental health and being overworked for mistakenly uploading the offensive content.
A spokesperson for the University told Exeposé, its student newspaper, that racism on the part of any of its students was unacceptable. Local police were now involved in investigating the content uploaded by ExeHonestly. When the ExeHonestly administrators said they did not know that the content was offensive, the University responded again. “A ten second internet search would have indicated that the latest posts were offensive to everyone in our community,” a spokesperson told Exeposé.
At a conference this month, academics and policy experts discussed the digital challenges that British universities face. Anonymous confessions pages was one item of discussion. How should universities respond to students posting things anonymously on the Internet – things that could embarrass students, invite police investigations or bring the university into disrepute? Would it be a breach of freedom of expression for a university to discipline students for comments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?
Do you think that universities have a right to discipline students for things they write online, even in a personal or anonymous capacity?
HE news in brief
Let's take a quick look at some of the other news stories from November:
- the main political parties have released their manifesto pledges in the 2019 general elections. Be sure to cast your vote next week!
- in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and a disastrous television interview, Prince Andrew has resigned as Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield
- the President of the Oxford Union has resigned after a blind Ghanaian man was forcibly removed from a seat he had reserved for a Union debate