IT'S Friday lunchtime at Strathclyde University, there's no teaching going on because the lecturers are on strike, but there is no lack of activity with students joining the picket lines, holding "teach outs" in the fresh air, a schedule of classes and events discussing a series of issues around education and democracy.

At the Students' Union they're waiting for a special guest, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who is in Glasgow to meet university principals and who has agreed to head to the union building to show support for the strike.

He had been due to meet the university bosses on university premises but this was changed at the last minute on the request of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). “I’ll never cross a picket line” he explains.

McDonnell begins his short address in Russian. “I’ve been practising since being called a KGB agent this past week”, he jokes before saying that he is in full support of the strike and will urge university vice-chancellors to get back to the negotiating table.

Speaking to the Sunday Herald he praised the actions that students have been taking across Scotland in support of the strike and pointed the finger of blame at hardline university management at English universities.

“What’s been happening in this dispute is a display of creativity by the students and the UCU in addition to the strike action,” he said.

“These teach-ins where they bring teachers and students together, and developing education is what our movement is all about.

“There’s some hardliners among some of the vice-chancellor in England, Oxford and elsewhere. I’m hoping some more reasonable vice-chancellors will put their foot down and say get back to negotiating table.”

The specifics of this strike may be a dispute over a change to pensions schemes, but many students believe this is an issue that affects them directly.

Across town at the University of Glasgow Spanish student Jack Hannigton puts it like this: “We’re campaigning for the quality of our own education as the quality of their teaching conditions determines that. Lecturers have been surprised how many of us have came out but it’s good to see them and be out here all together.”

Jimmy Reid may have famously organised the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders “work-in” in the Clydeside dispute back in the 1970s. In a similar vein, these students are using the time off classes to organise the teach-outs at their universities. .

“The idea is to use the time that the strikes have opened to try to re-imagine the university space and make it a more democratic curriculum that students and lecturers are choosing,” said Hannington.

“We’re putting on a variety of workshops from discussions about privatisation of education to to re-imaging the university as fully disability accessible and everything in between.

“We’re experimenting but it’s a really heartening process to see everyone around the university environment getting involved in an alternative idea of education.”

Staff at post-1992 universities in Scotland aren’t affected by the changes (they have different pension deals) but all others are, and pickets were formed on campuses from Dundee to Aberdeen to St Andrews.

The crux of the issue for the striking lecturers and tutors is that instead of a guaranteed pension income based on contributions, the proposals mean their pensions would be subject to changes in the stock market. The UCU claims the changes could leave their members up to £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

For some of those on the picket lines, this is the first time that they’ve withdrawn their labour.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been on strike,” said PhD student and tutor Scarlet Harris. “Obviously the main thing people are striking about is pensions but pensions are part of the wider story of marketisation of higher education. These are all things that affect students, and PhD students and tutors like myself more widely as well.

“As a teaching assistant my work is pretty precarious. The pension issue is part of increased precariousness for all members of staff in the university and I’m affected in a different way in terms of that precariousness.”

For others striking is not a new experience, but this particular action is unparalleled in its duration – a planned 14 days over four weeks.

“It’s completely unprecedented,” said Jeanette Findlay, president of UCU branch at the University of Glasgow. “In the history of this union we’ve never had an action as prolonged and sustained. We’ve also never had the levels of support for it and that’s because of the anger that people feel.

“We’re on strike because our employers have left us with no option but to go on strike. The only thing we can do is withdraw our labour because they’re refusing to talk to us. They’re trying to implement changes to our scheme which will be absolutely brutal.”

While the students on the picket lines are keen to show support, there are others who are more disgruntled. A petition by students at the University of Edinburgh calling for a reimbursement of fees has garnered over 5,000 signatures.

They calculate that they are missing 12 per cent of teaching time in an academic year, equating to up to £1000 if paying the maximum £9,000 a year rate set for rest of UK students.

Masters student Sonny Ruggiero from San Francisco says she supports the strike but feels her education is being adversely affected.

“I signed the petition as we come here to get the education that we’re paying for. I really value the courses I’m taking and I’m only getting half the semester of teaching.”

Economics lecturer Findlay says the blame for the situation lies firmly with the university management.

“If students are angry at what’s happened then they need to look at who caused it,” she said. “They are entitled to go to university management and say why have you created the circumstances where this strike action had to take place.”

Political support for the strike is not unanimous. Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative Shadow Education Secretary told the Sunday Herald: “The Scottish Conservatives do not support the planned strike action because of the disruption to students’ education.”

Why are the strikes taking place?

Universities UK want to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) through which lecturers gain their pension from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme. This means that employees would not have a guaranteed retirement income and instead their pension would be subject to changes in the stock market.

Universities say the changes are needed as the current scheme has a deficit of more than £6 billion but the UCU says they will lead to staff losing up to £10,000 a year in retirement.

What are the universities affected ?

Ten universities in Scotland are among 61 institutions across the UK where the strike is taking place The universities affected by strike action in Scotland are the University of Aberdeen, University of Dundee, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, Heriot-Watt University, Open University in Scotland, University of St Andrews, University of Stirling, University of Strathclyde, Scottish Association for Marine Science at University of the Highlands and Islands

When are the UCU on strike?

Staff are on strike for a total of 14 days spread over the course of four weeks.

Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February

Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February

Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March

Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March