Keeping the customer satisfied

UCU_posterStrike action might be entering the hot phase later this year as the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has approved ‘a marking boycott to be implemented from 28 April if university employers still refuse to thrash out a deal over pay’.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association ‘have so far refused to engage in any meaningful talks over pay, despite six strikes since October 2013 and increasingly vociferous complaints from students about cancelled classes and missed seminars.’ So their employees are now going to strike where it hurts most, and it is the students who are going to suffer.

It is unfortunate that things had to come this far. Academic staff do not want to hurt their students. Lecturers are aware how important marks are to them, especially to final-year and postgraduate students who are going to apply for jobs and will be desperately waiting for their results. But nothing else will now make a difference.

As the UCU points out, in recent negotiations

This is untenable.

Academics are not greedy. Most of us are in the job we do because we love it. We are a bunch of geeks who enjoy research, writing and teaching. We want to share our knowledge with our students. Most of us could get much better paid work elsewhere. But we are still here because we care, and university bosses are taking advantage of that. They know we would not abandon our passion for research and teaching over a couple of quid a month. So they put the pressure on and see how far they can go.

The current strike action is no longer just about money. In fact, it never really was only about money. It is about being taken seriously and about feeling valued.

As students pay £9,000 a year for their education, they want value in return. So their demands on staff time increase, while many teachers in Higher Education struggle on part-time or hourly contracts, and staff on full-time and permanent contracts are increasingly asked to do more of their own admin work on top of research, teaching, lesson prep, marking etc. University bosses put the pressure on in their fight for better NSS scores and competition for fee-paying students. Students put the pressure on because they pay, and they want higher marks. It’s the lecturing staff who are stuck in the middle trying to make it right for everyone and losing out in the process.

In an increasingly privatized and commercialised Higher Education sector the people who keep the show running on a day-to-day basis are the ones that should be valued the most. Instead, lecturers are asked to do more and more for (in real terms) less and less money. If you want to keep your customers satisfied, start by offering fair pay to the people running the shop. A little respect for the workers on the ground can go a long way.

So, will 2014 be the year of the great stand-off, or of reconciliation and compromise? I fear the first and hope for the latter. It’s up to university bosses to do the responsible thing.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

1 comment

  1. This pay issue is also a social problem, not limited to universities. There are a couple of large factors and many lesser ones. One big issue is that many good paying industrial jobs with benefits have been moved offshore. This not only reduces good jobs available but also serious impacts the taxes collected by the goverment – and government finances are a zero sum game : less in=less out. And hence a reduction in money available for higher education. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realize that this is a dangerous spiral; less education = less useful work force = less jobs = less money= less education and so on. The second major issue is a reduction in productivity. This could be regulation or lack of investment or a less invested workforce (compare the eagerness of, say a Vietnamese worker for a job to the first world workers’ increasing sense of entitlement – we’ve grown lazy and now we are paying for it). Again a spiral. More companies will move production elsewhere.

    Some of the lesser issues are an increasing of pay to managers and administrators and a relative decrease in pay to educators or workers. Companies and institutions argue that in lean times, it requires more skilled management to survive, hence more pay. A failure to do this will mean a loss of brain power to competition (so they argue). Personally, I think that those who control the funding more and more vote themselves higher increases than they will permit the workers or educators. This is typical of a capitalist democracy where fewer and fewer control more and more of the wealth. Effectively shrinking the middle class. This is an intrinsic function of our economic system and hence must be studied and legislation drafted to prevent or slow it. Some countries have started this process and one Scandanavian country recently toyed with a law that capped the highest managment wages at 10X the lowest paid worker. A start.

    I wish you and your colleagues the best of luck in negotiations, but I serious doubt any action on the contract front will slow thsi ongoing issue. Education is a critical part of reversing this trend but it can only do so as a part of a muti-pronged program directed at the larger economic issues. Thank you for your post – public discussion is certainly one more brick in the wall needed to shore up our economy..

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