It is midday and the University and College Union are holding their first rally of the strike. Bristo Square has been invaded and its controlled, corporate public space is, for an hour or so at least, in the hands of the workers.
The square was previously a stylish and atmospheric piazza. It isn’t any more, after a £33 million redevelopment programme saw an enormous building site being set up in the middle of the campus, disrupting Edinburgh Fringe venues and graduation ceremonies for two years running. What we got in return for this is largely, it has to be said, nothing. There is a vast grey space that is as bare as a buttock. At the margins of the square stands a squat, ugly “entrance pavilion,” which has been inset into the drifting remnants of the original venue’s neatly amphitheatric design. The whole facility has the soullessness of an empty car park, confirming that the architects had not bothered to learn any lessons from the dead public space that surrounds the nearby Usher Hall. After the University of Edinburgh was engorged with tuition fees, this is the kind of frolic that it chose to spend its surpluses on, instead of properly paying the staff who do all of the work and create all of its value.
Most of the student body had left for the pistes last week, as part of the lectureless “Flexible Learning Week,” and so the strike has begun with the resumption of teaching. About two hundred people are here, a broad mixture of academics and students. Speakers and embroidered banners have arrived from picket lines all around the campus and around Scotland. The sound system drops out half way through the speeches but the speakers are being constantly refreshed with new megaphones and everybody presses in to hear. Snow graces the rally with its magic – a few fakes, the first to be seen today – like some confetti that has wandered off from a wedding. An excited terrier, being held up by one striker, is maddened by the periodic noise of the applause and it barks along throatily. Everybody laughs and stops to admire it.
The mood is good-humoured but if this rally is compared to the thousands of students who are roaming over the adjacent George Square, and the Main Library, and the Meadows, with their heads full of other things, then it looks very frail. It resembles one of those crocuses on the Meadows that have poked up prematurely to be battered by the snow. “Our lecturers are striking,” a student passing by explains into her phone, as she raises her voice to be heard over the cheering. She says it as though the neighbours are quarrelling, an inexplicable private dispute. I suspect that this is so far the voice of the average student.
The University of Edinburgh maintains that out of its total income of £929 million during 2016/17, a mere £51 million is available to it as an active surplus. Moreover, the university apparently cannot take any position on the pension dispute because it has to abide by the line of Universities UK, the nationwide incarnation of all higher education employers. In common with the European Union that is so beloved amongst academics, these universities have pooled their policymaking, so that the decisions about any particular university’s own affairs are always made elsewhere and responsibility is thus always evaded. In this happy system, there can be no direct connection between the £33 million that the University of Edinburgh has spent upon its brick floor at Bristo Square and the money that is not being spent on its own staff’s wages.
With this chicanery I can see why people are striking. But the strike will have to become a crisis if its shock is not going to be cushioned and its power lost. Although student tuition fees are continuing to be levied throughout the strike, this money is not being paid as wages to the staff on the picket line. The administration is simply pocketing the cash. The University of Edinburgh will henceforth perversely boost its revenues the longer that the strike continues and the more staff that join it. When I size up the Bristo Square rally, I can appreciate the genuine throb of people power, and yet this strike will need to get bigger, louder, and more urgent if it is going to break through.