Flares, passionate chants and dancing were on show outside Firth Court today as hundreds of students, lecturers and local people rallied together in support of the UCU strike.
The rally, organised by the student-led Save Staff Pensions campaign, was hailed “really heartening” by Kieran Maxwell, President of Sheffield Students’ Union.
A crowd of hundreds cheered on speakers including SU Education Officer Stuart McMillan and a striking Linguistics lecturer from the University, whilst students led united chants including “When they say cut back, we say strike back” and “Keith Burnett get out, we know what you’re all about” to the smoke of flares and the rhythm of a samba band.
There was particular criticism at the University’s Vice-Chancellor Keith Burnett, with Lilly Cockwill from the Marxist Society calling him a “parasite” and members of the crowd hurling insults at the mention of his name.
Speaking to Forge Press, Stuart McMillan said: “I think it is very disappointing to see Keith refusing to come out against the proposals being put forward by UUK, especially considering that he’s been so critical of the government’s marketization agenda and when so many other VC’s have already come out against the proposals. So I think Keith should take the principled stand and come out against the proposals.”
Maxwell added: “It’s disappointing because he’s spoken out so many times on so many different things on TEF, on grants, on fees – he’s always taken a principled stance and said this is wrong; he’s been happy to stand up against government for so long.
“He’s retiring this year and I feel like he’s really letting himself down and leaving with a bit of a cloud of shame hanging over him, to be so bold, in not going as far as he has before. He is really letting himself down in many respects – not only the staff and students at this University.”
The rally came as 1,300 UCU members at the University walked out for the second day of strikes after talks broke down with Universities UK over a new staff pension scheme. The strike is set to last another 12 days throughout the next three weeks, with more events of solidarity planned to go ahead next week.
Sam Marsh, a Maths lecturer at the University and Communications Officer for UCU’s Sheffield branch, said: “The rally was all about getting that visible presence of feeling across the University really, and really to get students and staff in one place to show how united we are on this issue.
“From my point of view, it was so exciting to see so many people passionately talking about education for education’s sake, and showing that there’s a difference here not between staff and students but between people who care about education and people who think education is primarily about money.”
Reflecting on the rally, McMillan told Forge: “I think it was really effective, especially considering it was organised last minute and the number of people that showed up. I think it’s really important that following these two days of incredible solidarity and support that the momentum’s kept up, morale is kept up, and that we can go forward into the next week knowing that we can win and that we will win with enough strength and solidarity.
“The aim of the rally I see as two-fold. On the one hand it’s sending a loud and clear message to University management that students and workers are united in this issue, calling on Keith Burnett to use his influence to push for a fair deal for University workers and for our education.
“And also the value of the rally was to bring together all those who have been involved in building this campaign as well as those who have only just come into the campaign, so that we can go forward and build a bigger and brighter movement.”
Maxwell also commented: “What was really heartening was to see staff, students and members of the wider community come together in one space to show complete solidarity with the UCU and their actions.
“One of the things that staff do not want to do is to disadvantage students in any way at all, so by seeing students visible, out there, campaigning for them – I think that shows they do have a good cause here and they can be encouraged to continue.
“This has ramifications for students in their academic careers, for the entire education sector and this has ramifications for the entire future of pensions and employment in this country – this is more than about just pensions for the strikers and the university staff themselves.”
Explaining what is ahead, McMillan added: “We will hopefully be organising more of these rallies, and we’re also holding a picket tour on Monday where students can go around and show their support for the picket lines on the uni campus. We’ll also be holding an open meeting to bring everyone into the campaign and decide how we go forwards on Tuesday at 4.30pm.”
But despite the plans, Maxwell highlighted a desire for a resolution pointing out that: “Obviously, we hope that UUK and the senior management see sense as soon as possible and listen to UCU’s demands and the strikes will be called off. That’s the dream.”
Commenting on today’s rally, a University of Sheffield spokesperson said: “In an open letter sent today to Universities UK by our Vice Chancellor Sir Keith Burnett, he has encouraged UUK and UCU to engage in meaningful negotiations about a long term solution for the (USS), which meets the needs of employers and members. We welcome and support all efforts to bring the two sides back to talks, including use of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), if helpful.
“We remain committed to providing a strong and sustainable pension for staff and believe that negotiations must focus on developing a solution that is mutually acceptable in regards to benefits, affordability and risk.
“For the most part the University will be open as usual on strike days and we are continuing to work hard to ensure that the impact of this action on students is minimal. While there has been and will continue to be some disruption to lectures, we don’t expect this to be significant and the University will work to reschedule any lecture that is cancelled. We respect the right of UCU members to take industrial action, but we have a responsibility to minimise the disruption caused for our students and staff who choose not to participate.”
Unless a resolution is reached, the strikes will continue next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with rumours that plans are being made for another rally next Wednesday.