UCU strike action: An open letter to the Students’ Union

Students at the University of Bath have reported their discontent regarding the Students’ Union’s handling of the UCU lecture strikes based on two accounts: the lack of referendum, and the communication with students surrounding the strike action.

In previous years, students have been able to vote on the UCU strikes, however, this year no referendum went ahead. A number of students have told BathTime that they feel that their voices haven’t been heard and that the Students’ Union has failed to fulfil their job of representing the students by refusing to hold a referendum. Furthermore, until the 18th of November, the Students’ Union did not directly inform the entire student body about the strike action, which has left a number of students feeling confused, uninformed and upset about the lack of communication from their SU.

In an email sent out to executive society committees and the SUmmit team on the 11th of November, the SU informed students that due to previous referendums on strike action failing to reach quoracy, which prevented the SU from taking a stance in support or against the strikes, the SU would not be holding another referendum and would prefer to ask for comments about how the strike would impact students and their student experience, in order to inform the SU’s stance on the matter. Students who weren’t involved with this exchange have fed back their upset to BathTime that only a small proportion of the student population was consulted, which may have given an unrepresentative view of student opinion, swaying the SU’s stance on the strikes.

The SU has since decided to take the stance of supporting the strikes, having consulted a small group of student representatives. However, there has been further upset among students over the past week, as this decision was not formally emailed to students to notify them, but instead, a statement was read out on Instagram and posted as a reel to the SU’s Instagram account, and the SU updated their website with the same statement.

On the 18th of November, following information reaching the SU about student upset surrounding the handling and communication of the strikes, the Student’s Union formally contacted the student body to inform them of the strikes and the decision to formally support the UCU.

A group of students, who have been voicing their upset about the handling of the strikes, have written the following open letter to the Students’ Union to convey their concerns and sent it to BathTime to publish alongside this article.

To concerned elected members of the University of Bath Students’ Union,

            Upon election, you were chosen by the student body to fill two primary roles: to represent our needs, feelings and wishes; and to serve as a mouthpiece from which the student body could learn about issues by which it is affected. Your role is an important one, and we as a collective are grateful and thank you for undertaking it.

            However, in light of recent events surrounding the impending industrial action that is to be taken by the University and College Union (UCU), we, as a student body, are disappointed. The positions to which you were elected have many associated responsibilities, yet the two aforementioned are the most pivotal. We believe that your conduct surrounding this industrial action does not correspond with these responsibilities. 

Firstly, it is understood that the Students’ Union has officially taken a decision to support the industrial action of the UCU. This decision was taken without consulting the student body. We as a collective find this course of action to be incompatible with your role as student representatives. How can a decision possibly be fully representative of a group it did not consult? Regardless of their stance on the matter, students across the university feel disregarded by this decision. We understand that this decision was made due to a history of insufficient turnout, and we respect that the Students’ Union as such did not wish for this issue to compromise their ability to take a stance. However, a representative body that does not consult with those it represents in any manner is hardly representative. We would have appreciated some form of consultation on our views surrounding the industrial action, even if it were to be optional and informal. We hope you consider this moving forward.

Secondly, the student body at large has received minimal-to-no communication concerning both the industrial action itself, as well as the Students’ Union position. The confusion surrounding the action is unprecedented and widespread. The ill information of the student body has made it very difficult for many students to demonstrate their support or opposition to the industrial action. It is understood that the Students’ Union had consulted with select members of the student body, reserving any widespread communication for a poorly-advertised Instagram post; an unadvertised update to the Students’ Union website; and an email communication that came about far too late as a result of student pressure. You are a key vessel of communication between the student body and the university hierarchy, and a vital source of information for us surrounding interaction between this hierarchy and third parties, such as unions. Without this information, the student experience that you were elected to nourish instead deteriorates.

You are important members of the university community, and we as students rely on you. In this instance, you have let us down. We understand that you have many factors to consider in your decision-making, but surely one of those factors must be the students you represent. We are the lifeblood of the university, and collectively we expect to be consulted on decisions that directly impact our student experience.

Hereby signed,

           Concerned members of the University of Bath Student Body

If you would like to show your support by signing this open letter, please use the following link.

BathTime has also contacted the Students’ Union to ask them for some clarity surrounding the referendum and communication around the strikes and they responded with the following.

Who made the decision to consult students rather than hold a referendum this year?

Following thorough discussion and consideration, this was a SU Officer team decision. 

Why was the decision made to not hold a referendum?

Democracy is incredibly important to the Students’ Union and we are committed to being a student-led organisation. Some decisions we make are through ‘representative democracy’, while some are made through ‘direct democracy’. Examples of representative democracy can be seen across the world in the form of parliamentary governments, and a prime example of ‘direct democracy’ is a referendum. As an SU, we use a variety of mechanisms that utilise one or both of these methods. 

In this case of taking a stance on the coming round of UCU strikes, we made the decision as representatives to support UCU. As Officers, we are elected via cross-campus ballot to make decisions on behalf of our members – we have an obligation to be as representative as possible and make decisions in the interest of students. This is also why we engaged with our leading student representatives to gather wider representative student opinion. For example, our SUmmit committee is a representative group of students that meet to help set the political direction of The SU, and they vote to enact SU stances (or Standpoints) on a variety of issues throughout the year.

In this case, several factors contributed to our decision to not hold a referendum, including:

  • The timescales – Considering the aforementioned timeline, it would have been impractical to run a referendum. Our referendum procedure takes at least 16 days to run from start to finish.
  • The need – Considering that we are elected representatives, as a team, we understood that a referendum was not a necessity in making a decision on this issue. If the nature of the strike action was different, then perhaps we would have come to a different conclusion.
  • The nature of the strike action – The nature of strike action has the ability to change students’ perspective on it. This period of industrial action does not coincide with an assessment period, and is a total of 3 days. Therefore, the potential impact is not as strong compared to previous UCU strike action. We would also take into account the total amount of strike action of the academic year so far (none so far).
  • Previous UCU strike referendum – The last strike action referendum we ran in March 2022 did not reach quoracy (our minimum number of voters, which is 5% of the student body). This indicates a lower level of interest from the student body on this matter, or that a referendum is not the correct mechanism. Particularly given the timescales and nature of the strike action, we felt that a referendum may not have yielded an outcome in time, or at all.
  • Current NUS referendum – Lastly, you may have noticed that we are currently running a NUS affiliation referendum. We have been working on this since the 7thNovember. We felt that running two concurrent referenda would have not yielded valid results.

Why did the Students’ Union decide not to communicate with students via email about the strikes prior to the 18th of November?

UCU Bath released a statement on the 8th November. We think it would be useful for students to see the timeline of events surrounding our action on this issue since then (see below). Although nationally UCU released a statement on the 1st November – this was just indicating that individual local UCU branches had balloted in favour of strike action (meaning they were permitted to strike, not necessarily going to strike). So we were awaiting news from Bath UCU locally, which we saw on 8th November.

  • 8th November: Bath UCU made their statement regarding strike action.
  • 10th November: As an Officer team, we had internal discussion at Voice team meeting. We decided to engage with student leaders to gather some wider perspective.
  • 11th November: Our consultation requests went out to SUmmit and Exec committees, with a deadline of 14th November.
  • 14th November: We met with Bath UCU to discuss their perspective. Our updated Staff Strikes information page also went live on the website. The website link was shared on our social media throughout that week.
  • 15th November: Officer team discussed feedback from student leaders and made decision to support the strikes. We informed UCU and the Vice-Chancellor that day.
  • 16th November: We wrote our stance statement, and prepped our communications on this. Strike statement press release was made live on our website in the afternoon.
  • 17th November: Strike stance communications went out, including a recorded video on our Instagram. Our NUS referendum ‘Polling Open’ all student email went out on this day.
  • 18th November: All student email with info page/stance went out.

Would the Students’ Union like to add any more comments surrounding the discontent felt by students surrounding the handling of the strike action?

We would like to add that we really value student feedback on these sort of matters, and we encourage students to continue to get in contact with us to provide feedback on our decision-making. We are really happy to see students engaging with our processes, and getting involved in debates on these matters. We are always striving to improve, and the best way we can do that is through engaging with our members.

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