By Aaron Kiely
The Biosciences department at the University of Kent was under threat of eleven compulsory redundancies, around one-third of the staff. The University management claimed that research was poor within the department, despite the quality of teaching being ranked amongst the best by students. The University decided to ‘restructure’ the department and sack staff, some who had been in the department for up to twenty-two years in favour of employing research-only ‘high-fliers’ who would bring in better RAE scores.
After an historic extraordinary meeting of the UCU, over 130 members of the union unanimously voted to ballot for strike action or action short of a strike if the university planned to go ahead with the redundancies. Students were involved from the beginning and were invited to the meeting and links were formed at the earliest opportunity.
Several open meetings later, student groups on the campus united together and led grassroots action and planning to defend lecturers. It was crucial to garner the support of the average student and explain to them that defending the biosciences department was a matter of defending the quality of education and teaching standards. Student Union policy was passed to oppose the redundancies, mandating the Union to take a vastly differently stance to that of 2006 when it actively campaigned against the UCU during a pay dispute – pressure from Biosciences students and education activists ensured that such a course would be unthinkable in the present.
During an initial planning meeting of 20 students, the group debated strategy and unanimously agreed to plan a demonstration on a UCAS open-day against the job losses in solidarity with the lecturers. It was also agreed to send notice of such a demonstration to the deputy vice-chancellor stating that press would be invited. A week later, the student’s union sabbatical team also agreed to follow such a route and promised to make their resources available i.e. leaflet-printing, e-mails to all students and website updates. Over 350 students were confirmed to attend, with societies and individuals pledging to come out in number to be vocal in their opposition to the job cuts with local press such as the BBC and newspapers planning on creating coverage.
The day before the planned protest however, a joint statement from the UCU and University management was issued saying that strike action had been called off and all threats of compulsory redundancies had been lifted as well as plans for a redundancy avoidancy agreement; a clear and decisive victory for students and staff. Even at the University of Kent, noted in recent years for its political conservatism, students can lead important struggles, defend their education and most importantly come out victorious. The UCU issued a thank you to all students and noted that it was only possible because they had strong student support.
Here’s to a reinvigorated student movement at Kent, and long may it continue!