By Grace Brown, Opinion Editor
Though the previous foreign correspondence column may have convinced readers that I am here in Scotland primarily to eat good food and observe other women, this is — unfortunately — not the case. Thus, we should also examine the finer details of the British education system, which I have likewise been taking part in, though arguably with less frequency.
Classes at University of Scotland occur, for the most part, only once a week, for two hours. For example, my Hybrid Forms Poetry class meets on Wednesdays from 11:00-13:00 — military time is conventional here — and then dissipates for the next week. No doubt there are readings to complete and responses we are expected to upload before class time, but I honestly believe that less time overall is spent on school work than would be in the United States.
This is not to say that the British higher education system is inferior to that in the U.S.; in fact, I have felt more sincerely intellectually challenged during my time here than I have in a long time. According to my humble observations, it appears that classes at British universities (referred to strictly as “uni”) are less demanding in terms of time but more taxing in regards to brain power.
For example, I was responsible to “read” asemic poetry for the same aforementioned Hybrid Forms Poetry class. Since asemic poetry is composed without written words, opting instead for emotional doodling, I spent very little time actually “reading.” However, during class, I was expected to think very critically about what qualifies art as writing and then produce my own wordless writing, which was one of the most difficult academic activities I have ever embarked upon.
With less time spent physically in the classroom or poring over books, British “uni” students are able to pursue hobbies and personal interests more freely than their American counterparts. In combination with not needing to work one, two, three or more jobs in order to pay exorbitant tuition fees, British students have the liberty of reading what they choose, engaging in vibrant social life and maintaining their physical and mental health.
Even while still working remotely at Canisius’s on-campus Writing Center (in the library, on the main floor near the cura personalis rooms: make an appointment any time at canisius.mywconline.com or just walk in!), I have not had this much free time since I was in middle school. I definitely forgot how much I love reading before bed, taking long walks and lifting heavy weights for longer than the single hour I permit myself in the fast-paced life I lead at home.
As much as I would like to say this abbreviated class schedule and reduced financial burden is the solution to the woes of overwhelmed college students worldwide, British uni students still complain relentlessly of the arduous work they must complete at least once a week. So perhaps college students are naturally prone to grumbles of dissatisfaction.
Yet more than merely the shortened class time and reduced busy work that has contributed to limited participation for even the most Hermione Granger–esque students, like myself.
On Feb. 1 the National University & College Union (UCU) declared its intentions to take “industrial action” on 18 previously determined days dispersed sporadically throughout the semester. In layman's terms, that means that professors went on strike but only on certain days in order to more fairly allocate the missed days of class across the semester.
Since most classes at University of Glasgow meet only once a week and the semester is only 11 weeks long with one week reserved for reading (week six = “reading week”), one canceled class is equivalent to 10% of total class time missed, two days equalling 20% of overall time missed, etc. Even I can do the math.
Needless to say, this strike action had a pronounced effect on the ability of classes to progress through their curriculum according to schedule. Most of the time professors did not attempt to make up for canceled classes or revisit material from classes that would have occurred were the strikes not on; instead, they skipped it entirely and merely progressed to the proceeding week’s material.
Professors do always express lament at having to cancel class in order to attend the picket line but state that they feel obligated to partake in the UCU’s industrial action.
As I am neither a Scottish citizen nor a professor, it is definitely not my place to pass judgment on the UCU’s decision to strike or the professors’ decision to support it. I will admit it is a bit frustrating to travel all the way across the Atlantic to take classes only to find myself not taking classes.
However, my annoyance paled in comparison to that of a senior — which here they call a “fourth year” — Scottish student in attendance here at U of G. She told me that the strikes have occurred every single semester she has been enrolled, including years of online instruction during the pandemic. This means her entire college experience has been reduced by at least a quarter due to canceled class/field trips/educational activities in accordance with the strikes.
Another of my local Scottish friends who has a parent in higher education administration admitted regretfully that the strikes are usually not resolved. Since higher education is free for citizens of the United Kingdom, the university does not lose revenue if students decide not to attend next year as a result of the strike action.
As for international students who do pay tuition, they usually find themselves taken captive by the strikes, having already arrived and paid their tuition fees before they have an opportunity to reconsider on the basis of industrial action. Some international students, though, have put sufficient time, money and energy into obtaining a student visa that sticking around is deemed worthwhile.
Regardless of how unexpected or unpleasant the strikes may make the educational experience of students at U of G, their enrollment decisions generally remain relatively immune to the influence of the strikes. Therefore, though unfortunate, if the strikes aren’t affecting the university's overall revenue, they will not be very persuasive to the administration.
As of the time of this writing, Feb. 21, the UCU’s industrial action has been “called off” for two weeks, meaning on-campus activities have resumed as per usual. Only two of my classes total have been canceled thus far, so up to this point I have missed a mere fraction of my total Scottish education. I just hope it stays that way.