Ahead of another 14 days of strike action, the President of the local University and College Union branch at the University of Sheffield has told Forge Press how important the support of students is.

For the second time this academic year, lecturers, researchers and support staff are set to go on strike in two separate disputes, beginning on Thursday 20 February.

Sam Marsh, who teaches in the School of Maths and is the President of Sheffield UCU, said there is still time to stop the strikes going ahead, but Universities UK (UUK), who represent the employers in the negotiations, need to return to the negotiating table with a good enough offer to make the strikes unnecessary.

He also thanked students for their support in the previous round of strike action last semester, and said it was important for the morale of striking staff to see the support from students at the University.

Negotiations are still ongoing between the UCU and UUK, with the aim of reaching an agreement before the strikes begin. Marsh is also one of the five elected national UCU negotiators on the pensions dispute, and he called on UUK to make a fair offer.

“If they don’t make some kind of move to try and resolve the dispute before we go to strike action then I really despair at the contempt that that shows for students,” he said.

“This week is almost a last-ditch attempt to stop the strike and I hope they bring us something. If they come with nothing, then the strikes are definitely going ahead. I think that shows real contempt for students.”

Alongside the pensions dispute, there is a simultaneous dispute between the UCU and UUK on equality and fairness in the higher education sector, focusing on pay, casualization, workloads and gender/race pay gaps.

74 universities are set to walk out for 14 working days over February and March in the two disputes, with Sheffield UCU being one of 47 which is striking over both issues. The UCU said nationally that 1.2 million students nationally would be affected, 200,000 more than the last round of strike action.

Student support in Sheffield in the strikes last semester, and in spring 2018, has traditionally been high, but Sam Marsh understands why students could be frustrated by another round of action, and said lecturers don’t do this lightly.

“I completely understand that students in this position, looking at this strike action, and for whom this might be the third wave of serious industrial action, might well be saying this is completely wrong, and I agree with that.

“Nobody wants to be disrupting the education of the students they teach. It’s the worst thing for staff,” he added.

“We never know what the level of student support will be and we never take it for granted. All we can do is put across how we see things which we’re trying to do, and hope that students spot the unfairness and injustice.

“For students who supported us last semester, for whom we’re really grateful, I would appeal to them to say there has been almost no progress since before we started the strikes in terms of an attempt from the other side to properly resolve this issue.

“If you supported us then, please support us now because this industrial unrest will continue as long as the underlying issues aren’t resolved.”

Marsh added that future cohorts of students will continue to be affected unless the issues can be addressed in negotiations, with further talks set to take place before strike action begins.

“The only way for these strikes not to happen is for the employers to realise that time’s up, they can’t stop ignoring these issues,” he said.

“They have to start actively trying to end these strikes, but my fear is they will only try halfheartedly before the strikes, and during the 14 days is when they will start trying. And that’s hugely insulting to the students, because they could start trying now. We’re trying, we want them to try now.”

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