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June 06, 2006

The Union and the strike

Warwick Student Union’s Emergency General Meeting (EGM) on the 5th of June 2006, to discuss the Union’s position on the lecturers’ strike, attracted around 110 people and was thus significantly short of the quorum of 200 required to pass binding decisions.

At issue was a motion to lapse current Union policy 638 on the ongoing lecturers strike (policy 638 ‘Supporting the Lecturers Strike’) and to replace it with a policy that, while continuing to support the lecturers’ union, threatened to add pressure to both sides should no settlement have been reached by Week 9, the penultimate week of term.

While the motion actually softened the Union’s earlier position, the politics of the vote meant that it was zero-sum; a vote against the motion can be seen as a vote against the Union’s general position to support the teaching staff.

The outcome was a clear majority in support of the motion and thus in support of the lecturers.

The main speaker against the motion argued that the sole business of the Union should be to support the immediate interests of current students, particularly international students who have paid a large sum of money to study in the UK and will be returning to foreign countries where the politics of the lecturers strike are unknown and irrelevant.

Kat Stark, president of the Union, gave an unusually convincing speech, seconded by Brian Duggan, president elect, arguing that the long term interests of the students lie in supporting the lecturers. They also pointed out that the motion did not support the lecturers uncritically; withholding support for the failure of Business School lecturers to set exams and threatening action against both sides should they fail to come to an agreement by the end of term.

During the debate, speeches from the floor where of an exceptionally high standard, but the division clearly lay between a core of self-interested finalists and students who are not as directly affected by the strike.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the motion was that the strike could result in unclassified degrees being initially issued to Warwick students. This has clearly stirred a great deal of anger and resentment amongst finalists who fear that an unclassified degree could bar them from employment or further study.

For example, Jenny Ousbey, a finalist from the English department, claimed that her position to oppose the motion was contra to her usual politics but that the marking strike, which has had a dramatic effect on finalists, was ‘disgraceful’. While implying that a ‘laminated piece of paper’ from Warwick is of exceptional value because of the brand, an unclassified degree might threaten her postgraduate course in Cardiff.

The delay in getting results is frustrating, but its practical effect on career paths is limited. While an unclassified Warwick certainly does not have the cachet of a similar degree from Oxford or Cambridge, the timing and length of the delay will not affect the career trajectories of the four main bodies of students in question; those going on to further study, straight into ‘grad schemes’, those seeking employment in the next recruitment cycle and those seeking employment outside of the parachuted-into-the-top-roles programmes.

Firstly, taught postgraduate courses tend to be more a matter of paying the money rather than making the grade while the worries of finalists in relation to employment may be similarly unfounded.

Those students lucky enough have secured places on ‘graduate schemes’ needn’t worry about degree classifications since the Association of Graduate Employers is fully aware of this national problem.

For the majority who have not gained such a place the class of their degree is not of immediate importance since the ‘graduate scheme’ cycle is an annual one, affording plenty of time for that magic ‘2:1’ to be printed.

Finally, while the delay might prima facie effect those looking to enter real jobs without the benefit of a ‘fast track’, employers are more interested in experience than in grades, even if they are from Warwick.

However, there is another body of students who may be significantly affected; internationals. While UK employers and other institutions are very much ‘in the loop’ with regard to the pay dispute, foreign employers and institutions are not. As the opening speaker pointed out, international students are only here for a few years and then return to their home countries and thus have no interest in the long term efficacy of the UK higher education system.

While the deleterious effect on a handful of high-fee-paying international students is unfortunate, on balance the interests of both future students and the future of the UK Higher Education system must win hands-down on the interests of a minority of one year’s finalists, international or not.

The debate raged for around an hour, with high passions raised on both sides. However, it became clear by the end that the only substantive reason put forwarded against the motion was based on the pure short term self-interest of what is, in terms of the year in, year out functioning of UK Higher Education, a handful of current finalists.

The motion was carried by a comfortable majority with almost as many abstentions as votes against. While the small turn-out means that this particular motion will not become policy, it is indicative of the continued support of interested students for the lecturers strike.

October 05, 2005

Personal Histories

I was only thinking yesterday, on the train, about local histories and the history of ordinary people like ourselves. I hesitate to use the word “people’s history” as this has been hijacked by folkish historians seeking a woolly, paternalistic sort of history. The histories I’m talking about are stories from the battlefront of history, even if half the characters in these stories were not entirely aware of their place in the story.

I have a casual interest in the history of the British in the Spanish Civil War and read an excellent book of the same title by a chap called James K Hopkins. He noted how the international volunteers involved in that war are remembered as Oxbridge undergraduates and similar members of the upper middle classes, but the reality is that most of the volunteers were working men although most of their voices are lost from the history books because they didn’t have the training to express their voices – i.e. state education makes workers, public schools make leaders.

The Spanish war was something of an exception in that involved relatively large numbers (proportionally) of the self-educated working class, plus the war was a ‘Just War’ that is remembered as perhaps the last great hurrah for the international Left. Other wars, like the first world war, are brilliant examples of how the ordinary person’s voice is muted: officers brokedown and wrote protests and letters to parliament. Enlisted soldiers suffered from ‘mutism’, the only defiance available to them, or else where shot by their officers and sergeants.

The note that I entered into my notebook was that my family has no history. Although my family have been refugees from different parts of Europe, nothing was ever written down. There are no records, no journals, diaries or memoirs. My granddad wouldn’t even consider writing a memoir, but what is the difference between his story and that of a footballer or corrupt aristocrat? Instead of citable history there is only vague myths and dying legends: a great grandfather who came to Birkenhead from Ireland by himself at the age of 12, a family of Jewish refugees from the East, North Wales miners, Ulster farmers and, more recently, a family that saw the ruin and abandonment of their region (and their country) at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and her South East. Until the workingclass is confident and sure of its own histories, charlatans like Ben Chapman will remain in office and nothing will change.

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