A few days ago I finally graduated in International Politics from the University of Stirling. To show solidarity with striking lecturers, I wore the pink sash of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) on stage while receiving my degree. Little did I know that the next day my university would cut me out of the official video of my graduation.
Thankfully a friend had filmed the ceremony and tweeted the 11-second-long clip of my symbolic protest. The tweet calling out the university editor’s cut quickly got over 100,000 visualisations, forcing the university to apologise for the video it published. They claimed it was edited “in error”. Needless to say, I do not believe this was a mistake. Who would believe that the university, out of more than an hour-long ceremony, inadvertently cancelled the few seconds that contained a protest that was voicing dissent with the university management’s handling of their dispute with UCU?
The Stirling branch of UCU had called for three days of strikes during graduation. Knowing that my graduation was on one of these days, I felt compelled to show my solidarity and to shine a light on the industrial action that the management was trying so carefully not to mention. At last year’s ceremony, a couple of comrades had decided to wear the UCU sash. They were stopped at the entrance and told they would not be allowed on stage wearing it, as it was not considered appropriate “academic dress”. This time, I knew that I would have to take it out on stage if I wanted the protest to work, so when my time came, I pulled it out of my pocket and quickly put it on. The people on stage were all quite surprised, but I noticed a few smiles and nods, and a staff member winked at me in support. I was happy; given that I had considered they would possibly throw me out of the ceremony I was satisfied with how it had gone down. Nothing could have made me believe that they would have tried to censor me to silence an act of solidarity.
Ironically, as a comrade promptly pointed out on Twitter, the video had led the university to fall foul of the “Streisand effect”, when someone trying to avoid the spotlight acts in a way that attracts even more attention. Indeed, in the following days of graduation at Stirling, more students wore pink sashes supporting the strike, with placards outside graduation stating “You can’t cut us all out”.
During my graduation ceremony, I had to witness the speeches of the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor/Principal of the university. Both mentioned values that the management of the university does not seem to uphold. “Surely”, the Chancellor said, “it’s the role of the graduates in Arts and Humanities to challenge us, to question what is going on”. Well, I thought, that is exactly what I am aiming to do today, by challenging your handling of the UCU dispute, and hoping that you will renegotiate. Considering the university’s subsequent censorship, I doubt they meant a word of it.
Moreover, the Chancellor had the gall to praise university staff, thanking them for their contribution to our success and degrees as well as for their research and impact on society. And yet they chose to celebrate graduations while the staff were on strike. If anyone deserves to witness graduations it’s the university staff, who enable students to learn and achieve great things. University staff have been on strike over working conditions, pay, and pensions since the year before I started university in 2019. Personally, I have been affected by industrial action every single semester of my four-year degree, but I know that the responsibility lies with management. I have been on the picket lines talking and listening to the exhausted staff who cannot manage their workload and thus work overtime to meet deadlines while struggling financially and mentally. I have met some of the most amazing people on picket lines, and every single one of them has been trying to remain on top of their work out of love for their subject and their students. Our education system is falling apart before our eyes and the management is so detached from the day-to-day struggles of the staff they do not even realise the damage they are causing to their institution. This issue does not solely concern Stirling. Strikes have taken place at 145 universities across the UK in the last year.
Considering the exorbitant salaries of university managers, it is unsurprising that they do not feel the precariousness and insecurity that has been permeating the education sector. Their attitudes are epitomised by the recent leaked messages of the Principal of Aberdeen University, George Boyne, who said he wanted staff participating in the latest Marking and Assessment Boycott “To feel (financial) pain along the way”. Boyne happens to be the chair of the employers’ association (UCEA) that is in dispute with UCU. It is frankly unsurprising that they have not yet found a deal if these are the feelings of the members of UCEA. This attitude toward the staff, the lifeline of universities, does not align with the rhetoric these high-ranking individuals use during graduation ceremonies. Listening to their feel-good, empty catchphrases is revolting.
I encountered the Vice Chancellor/Principal of my university only once before my graduation. One day I politely approached him to ask about negotiations with UCU and to voice my support for them, thinking he would be interested in hearing from a student. I was met with this reply: “You should go and study what’s behind this (dispute)”. “I know what’s behind it,” I responded. “That is why I campaign in support of the UCU”. After this brief exchange, the principal sent campus security my way, claiming I had harassed him. When I explained the situation to security, nothing happened. The principal had simply wanted to send me a message. Is this someone who is really interested in being challenged? If you consider that our principal has spent much of his life in academia, you might expect him to relate to staff and to understand their position. He categorically does not, as exemplified by his draconian decision to withhold 50% of pay from staff participating in the latest Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). This is horrendous. For this reason, the second time I met him, on stage at graduation, I refused to shake his hand.
This widening gap between higher education management and staff is frustrating and makes you fear the worst. But hope is not lost. Some universities have been u-turning and are now asking UCEA to return to the table with UCU and negotiate a deal. This is a beautiful sign and my hope is that Stirling University will urge UCEA to do the same. At that point, I would be proud to have graduated from this university. Otherwise, I might actually start to doubt the value of my degree altogether if it is issued by people who do not recognise the essential role of staff and how important their working conditions are for students’ learning conditions.
I call on Stirling University, in particular the University Court, to match their words with actions, and “Be The Difference”, as the slogan of our university proclaims. Sit back at the table with UCU and negotiate a deal. The future of our education is at stake.
Ludovico Caminati is an activist and aspiring journalist. He is founder of Global Justice Stirling, a local branch of the social justice organisation Global Justice Now.