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Via Instagram/@ucunion

Students asked to snitch on striking staff fight back with memes

‘Trying to pit us against each other is not only futile but deeply wrong’

Yesterday (November 30) marked the final day of what the University and College Union is calling the biggest-ever university strike in the UK. Over the course of three days at the end of November, over 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the country took part in the strike, with a historic turnout at picket lines and a massive national rally.

What’s it all for? Well, the union’s demands include a pay rise to help staff cope with the cost of living crisis, as well as action to address precarious contracts and “dangerously high workloads”. UCU is also demanding that employers reverse pension cuts made earlier this year, which will see average members lose 35 per cent of their guaranteed retirement income.

The most recent strikes have shone a spotlight on these demands, as well as the widespread support of students who believe that poor pay and working conditions have a knock-on effect on their own education. However, they have also exposed some of the underhand tactics that institutions will use in efforts to suppress industrial action. One of these tactics was exposed on November 29, when students at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) shared an online form they’d received from management, which asked them to snitch on staff who were talking about their reasons for going on strike.

I felt it to be desperate on the part of management,” says Sebastian, 26, a masters student studying Theatre and Performance at QMUL. “They’re clearly clutching at straws trying to enforce their harsh and unjust pay cut policies. It’s unbelievable that our own university is asking students to police and spy on our own lecturers.” The snitching form sows damaging divisions between staff and students, he adds, pointing out the adverse affect on teaching: “What kind of a learning environment does such an atmosphere of suspicion create?” 

Rosy, 25, who was a QMUL undergraduate when the strikes started in 2018, similarly says that the university asking students to snitch is “laughable”. “The more students realise that snitching is not going to help their studies, and is going to detrimentally affect the staff, hopefully the more they realise these are real people with real lives,” they explain. “It’s of course illegal to keep lists of who is taking part in strike action, so the fact that QMUL thinks they're being particularly clever in this exercise needs at least a little pushback.”

Luckily, there was no shortage of pushback toward the snitching form. Liv Wynter, 30, is a Goldsmiths alum, and part of a feminist direct action group that often speaks on picket lines in solidarity with striking workers. When UCU first drew attention to QMUL’s call for snitching, Liv shared a link to the form via Twitter, captioned: “Wow, Queen Mary uni have set up this open [...] form for students to snitch on striking staff! Would be a shame if it got spammed and was unusable!” The form was subsequently flooded with complaints against the university management, as well as useless information, copypastas, and memes.

The snitch form is obviously disgusting, but most embarrassingly, poorly made and managed,” Liv tells Dazed. Explaining their call to spam the form, they add: “I think it’s important to do everything in our power to protect the staff working at the university, and to let the university itself know that the support for their cause extends far out beyond the picket line.”

Sebastian – who has been involved in student organising in support of the strikes for around a year – also shared the form via Twitter. Rosy, meanwhile, was inspired to submit their own claim via the form after their friend submitted Nicki Minaj lyrics under the moniker Nicholas M. Nage. Rosy went for an excerpt from the Bee Movie script, writing in the name “Jerry T. Bee” and the subject “aviation in practice”. “Unfortunately I could only put in 200 characters,” they say. “So we didn't even get to the fun bits.”

The campaign to spam the snitching site was seemingly successful, since the university had to take down the form hours after it was initially posted. It has since been replaced with a form that is only accessible to those with QMUL credentials – all the snitching without any of the fun. “To the wider body of the university, this probably sends a message that they won't listen to criticism or feedback in any form,” says Rosy, while Liv says that it’s “shameful” of the university to “push through with these underhand tactics, encouraging people to turn on their tutors”.

Nevertheless, the pushback against the call to snitch on staff sends a clear message that a significant portion of alumni, as well as the current student population, back the strikes. As Sebastian says: “It’s plainly apparent and commonsensical that meeting UCU’s demands and increasing staff pay and welfare makes for better research and better education.” 

“I’m sick and tired of students being used as an excuse for union-busting and cracking down on staff. Our learning conditions, their working conditions; it does not benefit students to be taught by overworked and underpaid people,” he continues, noting that it isn’t just about students’ quality of education, either. “It’s only ethical that staff would be treated with respect and dignity by their employers, and QMUL’s management practices have been anything but ethical. Both staff and us students deserve better. Trying to pit us against each other is not only futile but deeply wrong.”