An Open Letter to Manchester's Director of Student Experience

Earlier this summer, The Tab exclusively revealed that staff belonging to the University and College Union (UCU) will vote on whether to take industrial action over a number of issues relating to working conditions, including pay and the gender pay gap. If members vote to act, UCU members at 147 universities will strike during the first semester of the 2018/19 academic year.

Given the tremendous effects last year’s strikes had on students’ education and wellbeing, I wrote an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Nancy Rothwell. She did not respond. Instead, I received a reply from Mr. Simon Merrywest, the university’s Director of the Student Expeirence. This letter is my response to him:-

Dear Mr. Merrywest,

Thank you for your prompt correspondence but I did not feel that your response truly answered any of my questions or concerns. You began by saying the university will “take the necessary measures to minimise… the impact”. However, I personally feel very little was done during last year’s strikes to minimise such impact – there was simply no teaching.

I am therefore concerned about what would be done differently during the potential upcoming strikes. Although it has been stated by both government and university officials that a bachelor’s degree does not necessarily mean teaching, I believe it’s still important to consider that many students choose to study their chosen discipline to learn about the subject. They don’t do it simply for a certificate to hang on the wall.

You said that if a teaching session does not take place, “every effort will be made to ensure that students have the opportunity to engage with the learning either through rescheduling of the session or by provision of the learning resources through Blackboard.” Is this a newly implemented strategy? During previous strikes, there was no rescheduling or extra resources. At least in the discipline I study, we were set the exact same work, only with slightly revised deadlines.

But how could these learning resources be made available, either through rescheduled sessions or online, when striking lecturers aren’t permitted to teach in any capacity during the period of industrial action?

Mr. Merrywest, you also said that “actions taken to mitigate the impact of strikes will come from individual schools,” yet the only action seen in response to last year’s strikes was the offering of free graduation gowns to the 2018 graduating class. The impact of the strikes had a much higher impact on some disciplines than others so how can you say individual schools have been acting to mitigate the impact on their students? Regardless, I don’t see how a £50 gown is an acceptable reimbursement for a whole month’s worth of missed lectures, especially considering the strikes saved the university over £1 million.

The concern of many students, myself included, is regarding student fees. I understand and have already explained that the lecturers’ pay would be reimbursed throughout the university, but there is nowhere in the student contract, or in any literature I’ve read, that states we wouldn’t be able to claim some form of reimbursement also. I am of course aware that some of our fees go towards to the lecturers’ salaries, but not all of it. This is the money we are concerned about.

You made a point about how the strike pay is being used to “invest in support for student wellbeing, including helping tackle mental health issues.” From talking to fellow students about the current mental health services available, my first question is why hasn’t this area been previously invested in?

In 2016, YouGov released statistics showing that one in four students suffer from mental health problems. Given its prevalence, the mental health services currently offered by the university just aren’t good enough.

If you wish to talk to somebody, you must either visit or telephone their office but for those suffering from anxiety and other related issues, this can be incredibly difficult. There is no direct messaging or email service to replace this for those unable to fulfill these requirements. Similarly, the university operates a quiz system to determine how ‘urgent’ a mental health query is. How is it acceptable for an educational establishment to rate a student’s mental health and compare it against another student?

Are these the areas of mental health that are going to be invested in? Or are we simply getting another shiny new building? My peers and I want to know where the money is going and, more importantly, whether we’ll actually benefit from it. It does beg the question, however, as to why lecturers needed to strike in order for money to be put into student welfare.

You expressed a concern for the stress and anxiety I have suffered from as a result to the strikes, saying I could gain support from the University Student and Advice Team. In my time of anxiety, I spoke to my Academic Adviser and was told there was nothing that could be done and that I was to simply get on with it, finish my work and complete the year. Perhaps the schools should be made aware of the Support and Advice Team because I felt so unsupported that I have since requested a change of Academic Adviser.

Overall, I’d just like you to know that I am highly concerned about the potential impact any upcoming strikes will have on my university life. Despite your insistence that the university is doing everything they can to mitigate the impact, I still wholeheartedly believe they will be detrimental to myself, my peers and the university itself.

Yours sincerely,

Hana Kelly