On February 1, an unprecedented strike across the United Kingdom – described by the BBC as the biggest in a decade – saw school and university staff walking out as part of the protest. Reporting at the end of day by the BBC estimated that more than 50% of the schools in England were affected partially or completely as around 1,00,000 teachers went on strike.

Among those on strike were members of the University and College Union, one of the largest organisations in the United Kingdom with a total membership of around 1,20,000, according to its official website.

The strike on February 1 involved more than 60 universities and had the support of over 80% of the University and College Union’s members. More days of strikes will follow. After a strike on February 9-10, the union plans will go on strike on 15 more days until March 22. Central to the strike are demands for fair pay, improved employment conditions and pensions.

The strike has had a widespread impact on students, including international students and those from India. It also underlines the need to press for an equitable and viable education system for students and teachers alike in India.

Union’s demands

The union’s key demands were a fair pension scheme, increased pay and addressing “casualisation”. According to the union, 68% of research staff are on casualised contracts, with low pay and unstable work conditions.

Amid negotiations, the union on February 4 voted to reject the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s revised pay proposal. “…Our members have seen through your pleas of poverty as you sit on over £40bn of reserves,” the union website quoted general secretary Jo Grady as saying.

For India, the strike has a valuable lesson on the efficacy of collective bargaining and negotiation to enhance employment conditions and demand rights.

In recent years, teachers in India have made efforts to mobilise and draw attention to the issues they grapple with. For instance, the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations has been actively advocating for improved working conditions and better salaries for teachers.

The Indian government has responded to protests by teachers by increasing funding for education and launching programs to support teacher development. In October 2021, the Tamil Nadu state government announced a 30% pay hike for government school teachers following protests by the Tamil Nadu Teachers’ Association.

In August 2021, the Centre launched the NISHTHA program to provide professional development opportunities for teachers. Earlier that year in March, the government announced a budget of Rs 93,224 crore for the education sector, which included funds for initiatives such as the National Teacher Training Programme and NISHTHA.

But clearly more needs to be done to address the systemic issues of the education system. Teachers have participated in protests and strikes, but the response from the government has been mixed, with some initiatives being met with resistance and limited progress being made.

Education hurdles

In India, teachers, especially those employed by government institutions, often have multiple responsibilities. As educators, they shape the future of students, imparting knowledge and skills, thus contributing to the country’s growth and development. During elections, teachers take on crucial responsibilities, overseeing the voting process and working as polling officers. They have a key role in ensuring fair and democratic elections.

But low wages and job insecurity, among many challenges, remain a major concern. In rural areas, inadequate resources and the lack of basic infrastructure hinder the ability of teachers to engage students and create an effective learning environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation – again, rural and remote areas have been the worst affected where limited access to technology and poor internet connectivity have disrupted education. This has put further strain on teachers who may not have had previous experience or training in using technology for education.

Dialogue, negotiation and empathy

Another key takeaway is how advocacy and negotiation help accomplish outcomes. Teachers in India should consider the possibilities of engaging in constructive dialogue and negotiations with the government as well as relevant stakeholders to advocate for their rights and improve the education system.

For Indian students studying in the United Kingdom, the University and College Union strikes have been a learning experience. The strikes have disrupted academic schedules, but have also provided a platform for students to gain a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by teachers and the importance of protecting their rights.

The strikes have served as an opportunity for students to appreciate the significance of a fair and sustainable pension and remuneration system, which is crucial for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.

By participating in the strikes and supporting the cause, students can understand the power of collective action and the role they can play in advocating for important social and educational issues. Additionally, students also come to know of the challenges faced by teachers, which can help to foster greater empathy and appreciation for the critical role they play in shaping the future of their students.

Together, teachers and students can work towards creating a more equitable and sustainable education system that benefits all parties involved.

Amrit Prakash Pandey is a Political Researcher and Student of Data, Culture and Society at the University of Westminster. Views are personal.