Strike 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
- staff have been offered a pay rise of just 1%, which would leave them with a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2009. While staff pay has been kept down, vice-chancellors enjoyed an average pay rise of 5.1% last year, and an average salary of £235,000.
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.