During the 2017-2018 academic year, the teachers of University College Union (the UCU) went on strike over their pensions. It was a fair strike and many students, including myself, were fully supportive of this action. If you want to understand more about the strikes, please read these open letters to the Vice Chancellor and Director of Student Experience at UoM: Dear Nancy and Dear Mr Merrywest.
However, while these strikes were important and diplomatic, they were also incredibly problematic. For a month last year, there were next-to-no lectures or teaching going on for many students at the university. This was not just Manchester either – these strikes affected 65 universities across the country.
When the strikes ended and the lecturers came back to university, there was a question mark over what should be done with their unpaid wages for that past month. Some universities, including the University of Salford, offered the money back to the students who’d paid it through their tuition fees. The University of Manchester, however, did not and instead held an online survey in collaboration with the Students’ Union to find out how best to spend this accumulated money, through which it was decided that the graduating class of 2018 would not have to pay for their graduation gowns. However, every other year would still have to shell out the rental price of £40 for the unquestionable privilege of wearing the cap and gown.
The Tab reported in 2018 that over £1.1 million was saved by the university because of the strikes. From this, over £716,000 was spent on the class of 2018’s graduation gowns. This left £398,000 which was to be spent on mental health and wellbeing services.
Personally, I did not feel like this was wholly fair. I want to walk in my graduation and I am registered to do so. However, I do not want to pay £40 for something unnecessary and that I politically disagree with. I decided to voice my concerns to Mr Merrywest, the Director of Student Experience who I had previously spoken to about the strikes. His email came back, polite as ever, but also useless.
Mr Merrywest diplomatically informed me that I did not have a choice about wearing a gown, as in the University’s official guidelines it states that the official cap and gown must be worn in order to attend the ceremony. Furthermore, I was also informed that my graduating year, and the year after mine – who were all equally affected by the strikes – would not receive free gowns as these were offered to the graduating class of 2018 to create parity with what was being offered to us.
I was further told that the student body had decided they wanted the money to be used for student wellbeing and better mental health services. There was also some talk about a pavement that they had already started to build. One student gave Her Campus her thoughts on the situation:
“I just think it’s ridiculous and the University of Manchester needs to do something about it because we lost the same amount of teaching as those third years did and second year is just as important. Everything we could have learnt in second year; we could have applied to third year. It really mattered. We’ve seen absolutely nothing and it fucks me up.”
Furthermore, Mr Merrywest also commented on improving mental health services. I am all for improved mental health and wellbeing services at the University of Manchester. However, while the improved services have been announced, they have not been visible to students at the university, including a new dedicated centre. These services are also designed to help the most at risk, rather than help the general populous of the university, who already struggle with getting access to the mental health services.
I asked some other students about the parity being offered regarding the strikes. One student said this:
“I think the provision of mental health services as equal to payment of a graduation gown is highly offensive. Especially as we do not get a choice to wear the gown. The provision of mental health services should be a priority – for all students. Especially seeing as students today have such a high rate of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.”
The student also spoke about her own relationship with mental health and told Her Campus at Manchester how the university was not supportive in helping her. Another student shared her experience with the university’s mental health services and how it should not be compared to university gowns:
“I totally agree that the university should be giving us these gowns for free, and the fact that they’ve decided to compare it to mental health is a bit unacceptable. The university has an appalling mental health system. They failed to help me after a traumatic second year and I eventually gave up after being passed from person to person. The university’s saving grace is that my academic advisors have always been amazing.”
The new system aims to help those most in need, but the current system is not able to provide enough support to those who are asking for it. Today, if you require an appointment, you are asked to fill out an online survey which ranks your condition’s seriousness. If you try and call the university for an appointment, which can be difficult for those who suffer from anxiety, you are asked to call at 9am to sign up for the limited amount of appointments available that day.
Of course, the new systems put in place will open up more appointments. However, this should not have happened because of a surplus of lecturers’ unpaid wages. Mental health and all wellbeing services at universities should be a top priority regardless.
This exam period has seen some changes to student support and wellbeing at the university – from creative workshops, to free yoga, and library help sessions. However, many people do not think that this is enough and while the proposed new centre will help many people in the future, the 2019 graduating class have been disadvantaged. Another student told Her Campus:
“I don’t care about the yoga and creative shit at the SU. I am graduating, I am not at university to get creative stuff, I am at university to learn, to get my degree and to graduate. If they are taking money away from my teaching, then why do I have to pay to graduate?”
As for the pavement, whether or not we ended up paying for it (even I’m still not sure), here is a nice photo of me lying on it, reminiscing about the strikes and the money I wasted.