Writing by members of The Rattlecap. Artwork by Dani Rothmann.
This is an open letter to Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson concerning the upcoming eighteen days of UCU-led strike action. If you would like to sign it, leave your name and student number here: [https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfPborAyYQrG57u46DEKhXvIKgiWk9Ut8YM649sPA2ZPGJ2xQ/viewform?usp=sf_link]
I write to you as a member of the student body here at Edinburgh. No student who joined the university in 2018, the year of your arrival, has yet completed a single calendar year of study without strike action occurring. I am sure you are aware that the UCU’s proposed action in February and March constitutes the single most disruptive bout of strike action in academic history.
Students recognise these strikes are part of a series of decisions which are, to an extent, out of your control. The UCU cannot represent all academic staff and the University and College Employers Association cannot represent all Vice-Chancellors and Principals. You told me in an email in March that although the University was “pushing hard” for a reasonable settlement, it “cannot solve this in isolation, no individual University can do that”.
Almost five years since the beginning of the strike action, students are continuing to wonder why not. Edinburgh University runs a budget surplus of more than £100 million, holds more than £700 million in cash and investments and is currently engaged in construction projects worth more than £450 million.
We are not equals in this dispute. We are doing all we can do as students by sending you irritating emails and letters, and joining striking staff on the picket lines. Our professors are withdrawing their labour and losing weeks of pay during a cost-of-living crisis. You, on the other hand, are the Vice-Chancellor of a world-renowned University, in charge of allocating hundreds of millions of pounds.
The vast majority of students are sympathetic towards our lecturers, tutors and professors. Many of us chose to study or re-enroll at this university because of the talent and passion of the staff. Through strike after strike, we watch them actively try to reduce the disruption they cause to us and our studies. This is why we cannot stand by and watch them suffer a real-terms pay cut, a reduction in pensions, and insecure contract deals.
Many of us are also considering careers in academia. The Vice-Chancellor of any University wants the next generation of intellectual talent to be formed of their own graduates – but there is little incentive for students to continue in their fields, where they cannot be guaranteed a stable career.
This will only get worse: late last year, cleaners, library workers and administrators chose to strike at Napier University. Those who remained in Edinburgh during the Fringe bin strikes will understand very well the vitality of such staff. It should be implicit that every worker at this University deserves an above-inflation pay increase, a secure contract and a liveable pension.
I imagine your priority is the same as ours and our professors, for the strike action to be called off. This will only happen when staff no longer feel the need to disrupt their own workplace in order to secure for themselves a pay packet that allows them to live comfortably, and a contract without entirely unnecessary precarity. This should instead be the basic expectation for any of your staff.
If you wish to invest in your staff as much as you invest in new construction projects, you would agree with them a suitable and generous pay and pensions deal. If you wish to prove to your students you sympathise with us, you would help end the strike disruption, or rather, re-imburse us eighteen days’ worth of tuition payments, which I make out to be around £1400 per student.
You expressed surprise and disappointment in March 2022 that four years after your arrival here, strike action continued to take place. Here, Mr Mathieson, we concur. The student body also expresses its surprise, disappointment – and, in many cases, anger – that you have not resolved these disputes using the tools at your disposal.
It’s within reason for students and staff to want to feel as though you, as Vice-Chancellor, hold our interests of high importance – even to feel that you care about us. However, I think many of us can agree that throughout our time in this institution, it has never felt as such. Your dealing with this demand from students and staff gives you an opportunity to rectify this.
If you believe our message to be misguided or the information within inaccurate, we invite you to write a reply, which like this letter, will be published on the Rattlecap website. But after years of disruption, we are entirely fed up with words and are demanding swift action.
Members of The Rattlecap and Students at Edinburgh University