Ann Henderson, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Education, International Women's Day, Opinion, Peter Mathieson, Politics, Scottish Parliament, Scottish Parliament Building, Strike, Students, The Beast from the East, The University and College Union, USS Strike
Today there is feeble but pretty sunshine slanting across the pavements and everything in Edinburgh still looks a little sleek after the recent disappearance of so much snow. Actually, you can still pick out snow here and there, six days after it first fell, lying in awkward, lonely islands in sheltered places. It is as colourless as rubble and also as hard, except that, amazingly, you can sometimes see clear, shining water seeping discreetly from it.
It is a week and a half since the current strike began amongst Scotland’s university sector, over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). I don’t want to have to resort to the disappearing snow as a metaphor, but it turns out that I won’t need to. The rally outside the Scottish Parliament today is bigger than that in Bristo Square last Monday. This strike has stamina and it is not melting away.
The concrete ruin of the parliament looks even gaunter in today’s bright sunshine. The rally finds itself squashed outside the entrance between the crowd-deterring ornamental ponds. People are standing in droves on the ledges and, towards the end of the rally, one hapless gentleman will miss his footing and fall in. There are shocked gasps and then generous, good-humoured applause when he appears again, waving to show that he is okay.
There will be eventually a strike or protest outside the parliament which is so huge that the impatient crowd will drain these ponds using their hats. The water will be carried across the road and dumped in the garden of Holyrood Palace. News will reach the Queen. “Your Majesty, a lake is encroaching!” Soon crowned Royals and liveried flunkies will be scampering pell-mell out of the palace windows.
There is a pleasant, fair-weather mood at this rally, with inquisitive dogs sniffing about underfoot and colourful placards bobbing overhead. All of the placards seem to feature equally droll slogans, so that nothing really stands out from the hum. After a while I develop a soft spot for “Kiss My USS Goodbye,” which is probably the least mature of the offerings. It is International Women’s Day and I come to be surrounded by numerous photographs of inspiring-looking women, who I feel guilty and resentful about not recognising. Some are dressed in Third World peasant costumes and others are posing stiffly for Victorian photographers. One placard insists that women are dangerous and powerful.
This strike is doing so well because it is conscientious about its own broadness and about continuing to maintain this platform that it has built. The compere pays tribute to the students who are supporting the university staff. Jodie Waite, the Vice-President of the National Union of Students Scotland, confirms that students are disturbed about the threat to the university sector and the decimation of the expertise that is available across campuses. She pays tribute to the staff who are striking. The trade union speakers pay tribute to the cross-party political support for the strike. An SNP MSP who was once a lecturer pays tribute to university staff who she is adamant would not strike lightly. Somebody remembers to pay tribute to the support staff who are not quite lecturers. One trade unionist says that the way universities are now run has turned them into “the worst elements of our society.” The new rector, Ann Henderson, is the final speaker and her words are in keeping with the general, ever-attentive harmoniousness of this event. She pays tribute to the wide electoral support that she has enjoyed from staff and students alike.
At first International Women’s Day appears to be mentioned a lot simply because it is not really feasible to ignore it. Later, however, something rather scandalous is revealed that is pertinent to the day’s theme. Last week the management at St Andrews University had threatened to cut maternity entitlements for their staff if they were forced to adopt a more liberal pensions regime. So women would have had to bear the brunt of the subsequent austerity.
The Tories are the only major political party that are not in attendance today. They are obviously not so detoxified yet that they are able to look striking workers in the eye. I know that it is not wholly in the spirit of the strike, but I am starting to feel some pity for this new principal of Edinburgh University, Peter Mathieson, who had his pet dog and cat transported to Edinburgh from Hong Kong at a cost of thousands of pounds in expenses. Whatever he does during his time at Edinburgh, this is all that he will ever be famous for. It will be his sole contribution to popular culture. Even his name doesn’t stick. He is just that guy – the guy with the dog and the cat.
He is being paid £80,000 more than the last grey-haired man in a suit to fill the principal’s role. Having so immediately and beautifully undermined the university’s emphasis upon saving money, and in such a comical way, you have to wonder what this shrewdness is that the university are paying him so much for.
Amongst many young people, there is a widespread feeling abroad that having a decent pension is now unrealistic or nostalgic. The folly of this attitude is criticised by the speaker from the TUC and her criticisms are reaffirmed by Ann Henderson when she warns that silence will get us nowhere. It is of dire importance that the USS strike succeeds. Both sides are currently in Acas talks. I disagree with these negotiations being confidential. They should be held on Twitter, in front of a webcam. Our universities are not secretive corporations but public spaces of learning and knowledge. Greater openness would be a sign that things are starting to get serious.