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When the plan for strikes was first announced, I sighed at my laptop and wondered how the university could justify me paying thousands in tuition fees when my teaching has been so significantly impacted, not only from covid but also from strikes. As an English student, my contact hours are few and far between. Striking meant that over three weeks I lost a total of twelve hours of learning from leading researchers in my chosen modules. This may not seem like much, but when summative essay deadlines are looming I need all of the teaching material I can get. It is quite obvious why I and so many other students were annoyed.

I went around complaining about how this would impact my learning until I had an enlightening conversation with one of my seminar leaders about why these strikes are necessary. He brought up exploitative workloads, reducing pensions and the overwhelming stress that academic staff are under to produce excellent teaching when they are being pulled in multiple directions. More information on this is publicly available on the UCU website. This transparent dialogue between staff and student helped me to empathise with the striking lecturers, and I finally understood why the strikes were actually happening. When he asked for questions, I confidently put my hand up and asked how a student could help, and his face lit up. We were on the same side.

After this conversation, I put myself to work. I emailed the Vice-Chancellor about how the strikes impacted my learning and how the university should be doing more to support the staff that make Durham so reputable. When staff were on the picket line I brought over snacks, read their leaflets and wore their stickers. More conversations were had, and I realised that Durham was not the only university to be affected: this was a national problem. With this also came the understanding that the issues at hand were more complex than I previously thought. I did not know much about university budgets, or the management structures put in place in all universities. I am just one student in a much larger system.

Suddenly, there came the information on sanctions given to academic staff if they did not provide adequate learning materials when on strike. The university was threatening to deduct 25% pay from staff who performed ‘Action Short of a Strike’, which involves not uploading missed content from strike action. I was disgusted. The university staff are having their livelihoods attacked, and when they took a stand to protect themselves, they were punished. It seemed to me that the university was trying to appeal to students to ensure they still have some semblance of ‘mitigation’ content, however, it fell very flat. The university staff were the very reason I chose to study in Durham, and treating them in this way was certainly not the way to win me over. This was a national problem, but the university’s penalties forced me to register its hand in the situation once again. Resume the snack-giving and angry emailing.  

In some ways, the strikes also gave me solace. The free-time I gained from not travelling to-and-from lectures meant that I could spend more time reading; English is a very demanding course not necessarily for difficult content but the quantity of it. My room is full of piles of books whose pages never see the light of day. The temporary freedom I gained under strike action allowed me to sit and read without feeling guilty for not doing more active work. I found a love for D. H. Lawrence and an appreciation for graphic novels. Reading stopped being a chore and instead was a relaxing start to my day that set me up for productivity. Whilst I stuck my nose into prose, my friends went home to see family. University can often be a place of isolation, so it was heart-warming seeing them so excited to cuddle pets and have food cooked for them by family members once again. The strikes gave us space to breathe after weeks of relentless deadlines and preparation.

The UCU strikes gave me clarity on why the university system needs to change, more respect for my academic staff, and the space to fall back in love with my degree. This mixed bag of emotions makes me hesitant to say I’m optimistic about finding a solution, but I do know that I will support the academic staff to ensure their jobs are ones they want to come back to. To reiterate, they are the reason teaching at Durham is as fantastic as it is.

Yazz Dean

Durham '23

I am an amateur writer, lifestyle blogger and a content writer for HerCampus at my university. I study English Literature at Durham University with a special interest in modernism, Victorian fiction and post-colonial literature. In my free time, you can find me strolling Durham for a cute café, eating lots of chocolate, or learning a new trick with the Durham University Pole Dancing Society. I also enjoy discussing topics about sexuality and LGBT+ rights (although the great debate shall forever be what chocolate brand is the best).
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