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Dr Helen Hanna - Research and training

Hello! My name is Dr Helen Hanna and I am an academic and trainer. My research looks at education, migration, citizenship and human righ...

Thursday 1 December 2022

Strikes and protests: Let’s keep talking


UCU Strikes https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-59415694

I feel like I’ve been on strike quite a lot lately. I work at a university and we’ve been worried about workloads, about pensions, about job stability and fair treatment for a long time now, and we’re at the end of our tether. So we've been on strike for three days in November 2022, likely with more to come.

While we’ve been striking, other things have been happening in the world. People in Mainland China have decided that they are also at the end of their tether – ostensibly with Covid restrictions, but in some places, people are out on the streets protesting for democracy and against Internet censorship, for freedom of speech and against the current regime of Xi Jinping. These open shows of discontent carry serious consequences for the protestors. One only needs to look at what happened to those who protested in Hong Kong in 2019-2020 to know the possibilities for a crackdown, something I witnessed myself when I worked there for a short time. And yet, they continue.

For me, these two things have been swirling around in my mind in a messy mix of thoughts and feelings, sometimes angry, sometimes despairing, often hopeful. At my university (and many others in the UK), we have high numbers of students from Mainland China studying with us. In some cases, it could be argued that these students are literally bankrolling the universities, paying at least £20,000 a year for the chance to gain a Masters at a high-ranking British university. This creates something of a symbiotic relationship, whereby, as lecturers, we are aware that the financial health of the university – and therefore the very existence of our jobs – relies on maintaining the ‘satisfaction’ of our students. It has led to sometimes difficult – but, strangely, mostly unspoken – decisions about what is, can and should be talked about in class. As educators, I dare say we all are motivated by the desire to help students learn, to introduce them to new ideas, and to give them the opportunity (if they wish to take it) to talk openly about things that matter to them. There are rarely university policies stating ‘don’t talk about that with those students’. And yet, in discussing this with colleagues from multiple universities, I have come across so many of us who self-police, who treat Chinese students with kid gloves, who hesitate to talk about current affairs in China, when country-level issues are our students’ biggest knowledge resource (and from which, ‘good practice’ in teaching, we are often told, emanates). I know someone who completely changed their curriculum (they teach about media protest) because they were worried that students from Mainland China would complain, and they’d get in trouble with the university. We should ask ourselves: Would we hesitate so much if the majority of our students were from, let’s say, the USA, or Chile, or Nigeria? Would we hold back in critiquing our own country’s policies in class? Honestly, I doubt it. And honestly, I doubt if our Chinese students wish to receive such special treatment.

This week, one of my students expressed genuine concern that I might get into serious trouble with the university for going on strike. I had to laugh a little. In China, going on strike – indeed, almost any kind of public protest – is illegal, so her concern was not misplaced. But I don’t live in China (although I used to); I live in a country where this is my right and, at least at the moment, the biggest risk I run in striking is to be faced with the apathy of my employers. Without talking openly about strikes, about democracy, about protest (in the context of what I teach about education rights), my students and I would have missed that moment to talk about these things that really matter, and to show that there are always alternatives to the status quo.

In our eagerness to self-police under the guise of being culturally sensitive, and in our hesitancy to offer a space for students to broach the elephant in the room of political protests, we deny our students – from China and elsewhere – the opportunity to discuss critical issues in their country, to pick everything apart and put it all back together again, and ultimately, then, the chance to make real changes when they return home.

This is really all about rights: the right to strike and the right to protest, the right to teach and the right to learn, the right to speak and the right to hear. It's how democracy works.

They want to talk. So, let’s do our jobs and keep talking…after the strike.