The impact of strikes on higher education: Should universities address the disruption?

October 9, 2023

Jayde Robertson

If you've ever been to college, or work in the sector, you're probably familiar with the ebb and flow of campus life. But every once in a while, something comes along that disrupts the academic dance. That something… is university strikes.

As education marketers, we wear many hats, and one of the most crucial ones is that of an empathetic observer. Our role often involves putting ourselves into our prospect's proverbial shoes, seeking a deeper understanding of their hopes, dreams, and concerns. It's this empathy that helps us craft compelling campaigns and strategies that resonate with our audience.

But today, we're donning those empathetic shoes not for marketing purposes, but to truly understand the emotional impact of university strikes. These strikes are more than just news headlines; they're experiences that shape the lives of students, educators, and institutions alike.

What’s going on?

Imagine this for a second.  You're gearing up for the academic adventure of a lifetime, but just as you're about to dive into a much-anticipated experience, you find yourself in the middle of a picket line. What's going on? Well, it's the University and College Union (UCU) 2023 strikes, and they're making waves at 140 universities across the UK.

The UCU's battle cry? They want a pay rise linked to the RPI measure of inflation, plus a little extra - 2% to be exact. But they're not stopping there. They're also saying no to zero-hours contracts and those pesky temporary gigs. They're all about job stability.

Now, on the other side of the ring, you've got the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). They're saying, "Hold on, we've got something for you!" They've offered a pay deal for 2023-24, and it's a whopper - between 5% and 8%. They claim it's the best offer in nearly 20 years.

But here's where it gets interesting. The UCU and their supporters aren't buying it. They argue that beneath that shiny offer, there's a sneaky real-terms pay cut lurking. So sneaky that 56% of the UCU members who voted said, "Thanks, but no thanks" to the offer.

And here's the plot twist: even though the offer was rejected, the UCEA is telling universities to go ahead and implement that pay boost, starting in February. But the UCU isn't giving up. They're pretty sure they can sort out another issue, too - a pension problem. They're aiming to restore those reduced pension benefits.

So, there you have it - educators fighting for what they believe is fair. In the spirit of our lecturers' quest for a better life, let's take a moment for some philosophical musing. This is nothing more than a dance, where every step resonates beyond the performers to the eager learners in pursuit of knowledge. It's crucial that we support the lecturers on their journey, but it's equally vital that we consider the ripples their actions create, especially for the students.

What’s the real impact?

For students, university strikes are basically the equivalent of  a pop quiz on the first day of class – unexpected and anxiety-inducing. The impact varies from one campus to another, and it largely depends on how universities plan to tackle the strike's aftermath. Sometimes, it means extended deadlines or rescheduled classes. But let's not sugarcoat it; it can throw a massive wrench into the smoothly oiled gears of their academic journey.

International students often bear the brunt of the disruption, grappling with the stress of potential visa status issues. The strikes have a way of dictating the future for these students, adding an unwelcome layer of uncertainty to their educational experience.

Beyond the strikes - here’s what we think

Let's zoom out a bit. University strikes are like a thunderstorm in the grand landscape of higher education. They might disrupt the picnic, but they also water the flowers of change. Strikes push universities to reevaluate their priorities. They’re a necessary evil that makes the collective consider the distribution of resources, the treatment of staff, and the promise of a world-class education.

The future of higher education isn't set in stone; it's a dynamic canvas waiting for brushstrokes of progress. Strikes might disrupt the rhythm, but they also create a platform for dialogue. They force universities to consider the values and priorities that shape their institutions. It's about adapting, evolving, and addressing the concerns at the heart of these labor disputes.

Here's where it gets tricky. Should universities come clean and tell you, the soon-to-be student, about the potential disruptions caused by these strikes? Or is it acceptable to keep you blissfully ignorant, crossing your fingers that the storm will pass you by? These aren't just empty questions; they get right to the heart of higher education – the thrilling quest for wisdom and enlightenment. 

In this whirlwind of uncertainties, there's a chance for education marketers to step up and shine. It's not all about flashy course brochures or bragging about rankings. It's about being a beacon of light in the midst of academic uncertainty. When universities give prospective students the real scoop on how these strikes might shake things up, it's like offering them a lifejacket in the tumultuous sea of university life. It's a way of saying, "Hey, we've got your back!"

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