Caught in the Middle

Academics these days are caught between a rock and a hard place.

On one side we have a government which seems not only malevolent but also utterly incompetent. I cite the recent example of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, which has completely lost control of its budget, meaning that further cuts are likely to a higher education sector already struggling to cope with the instability generated by constant meddling from successive governments.

On the other we have our students, who are definitely getting a very raw deal compared with those of my generation. Most are justifiably  unhappy with the high level of fees they have to pay. Many also feel generally alienated by the way the country is run, for the benefit of the rich  at the expense of the young and the poor. Recent campus protests across the country are clearly a manifestation of this groundswell of resentment, although in some cases they have clearly been hijacked by extremist elements who will protest about anything at the drop of a hat just for the sake of it.

In between we have us academics, the vast majority of whom agree with the students  that UK higher education is in a complete mess and that the UK government is responsible. However, most of us also believe in the importance of universities as places of research, scholarship and teaching and want to carry out those activities as best we can for the benefit not only of our current students but for society as a whole.

So what should we academics who find ourselves caught  in the middle do?

Unsurprisingly, opinions differ and I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself when I state mine. I think it’s the responsibility of academic staff to recognize the burden placed on our students by government and in the light of that do absolutely everything in our power to give them the best education we can. That means ensuring that as much of the money coming into universities from tuition fees goes directly towards improving the education of students – better teaching facilities, more and better trained staff and a better all-round experience of campus life. That is the reason that I did not participate in the recent strikes over pay: I absolutely refuse to take any action that would be in any way detrimental to the education of students in my School. Call me a scab if you wish. My conscience is clear. For me it’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of responsibility.

So what about the recent wave of student protests? Again, all I can do is give my own opinion (not that of my employer or anyone else) which is that I believe in the right to protest – as long as it’s peaceful – but targeting universities is short-sighted and counterproductive.  I’m sure that all the government is delighted that none of the latest protests have been in Whitehall, which is where the focus of complaint should be, but instead dissipated at arms length in a series of futile and divisive campus demonstrations.

And if one of these protests causes enough disruption that it succeeds in closing down a university for good – and don’t tell me that this government won’t allow that to happen – what good will that have done?

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4 Responses to “Caught in the Middle”

  1. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    This is a complex issue. I voted against the strike action, for similar reasons to those you express (though I’m not sure whether you speak as a union member or not – if not you would have no authority to strike in any case). But I do feel that as the union membership has voted for a strike with a clear majority (of those who voted anyway, and those who didn’t have only themselves to blame), it is an obligation on members to act in unison.

    Of course it is an unpalatable fact that action can harm the students. But it is also worth noting that the student unions support the strike action. They may be students now, but one day many of them will, it is to be hoped, also be working in our universities. We are not necessarily doing them any favours by allowing, through inaction, the working conditions of those future jobs to yet further deteriorate, and I think our students are clear-thinking enough to understand that.

    It is also true that the university sector as a whole is at its most financially secure position in recent memory, largely of course because of the absurd student fee policy. Despite that, university management has presided over a fairly substantial real terms drop in salaries for academic staff over many years, their only excuse apparently being the financial instability of government policy that you refer to that motivates them to hoard.

    Let me say it this way. We already carry quite enough guilt for the fact that our time as students was much easier than the current students experience. Let’s not add to that by allowing their subsequent academic jobs to be much worse than ours also.

    all best,

    Andrew

    • telescoper Says:

      Dear Andrew,

      Just to fill in the missing information, I am not a member of UCU. I was an AUT member years ago but resigned over a specific issue that I won’t go into. When I wrote about not participating in the strike, I meant that I (along with the majority of staff in MPS) crossed the picket line to carry out their duties as normal.

      As for academic pay, I think the union line (which you repeat) is economical with the truth. Annual increments correspond to automatic pay rises for most staff of 3% even before the negotiated uplift is applied. Most jobs don’t have this: pay rises have to be linked to performance. Taking increments, promotions and bonuses into account academic pay has not declined in real terms at all for the majority of academic staff.

      I do however have real sympathy for those on low grades and those who have no opportunity for career progression. I would strongly support a revision of the pay structure that gave an uplift at the bottom but not further up, but UCU does not seem to be arguing for that.

      Finally, I dispute your assertion that funding for HE is “secure”; that depends a lot on where you are. The BIS debacle, lifting of the number cap, etc etc suggest to me that some institutions will do well, but others will shortly have to start laying off staff.

      Best Wishes,

      Peter

  2. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    Narrowing the pay scale by preferentially uplifting the lower end would be desirable. To be fair to the union, the negotiations that led to the creation of the unified pay scale about five years ago did exactly this (narrowing the gap between steps from 5% to 3%). It does seem to be harder to address this issue now that there is a unified spine because all the campus unions, academic and non-academic, have to agree.

    I’m not a particularly enthusiastic union member though, and as I said I did vote against the current action. Unfortunately not very many staff are union members because they don’t feel (probably correctly) that the union represents their views, but because most people don’t join that situation doesn’t change.

    Anyway, I think it is incorrect to argue that these increments should be included in considering the effect of cost-of-living on university staff. Ultimately people end their careers high up the pay spine and are replaced by those at lower positions. In steady state the distribution of people across the pay scales should be roughly unchanging. Hence if the scales as a whole fall significantly behind inflation, future staff will be worse off than present ones. And, indeed, it is the newest and lowest paid staff who bear the brunt (along with those stuck at the top of scales and unable to progress).

    I didn’t really mean to imply that HE funding is secure. It is a true statement that the overall surplus in the sector is the largest ever, which in normal times would be the only fact of relevance. But the haphazard government approach to HE does mean large variations can be expected (particularly between the different home nations given their different fee policies) and I’m afraid it is not at all unlikely that some universities may find themselves in serious difficulties. On the other hand it is at best debatable that the pay strategy for the whole sector should be driven by the extremes of the distribution.

    all best,

    Andrew

  3. The main point of a strike is to attract attention, at least in a case like this. (If one is working in a factory, say, then striking can severely impact the financial situation of the employer. That’s not the case when profs don’t teach students.) When I was a student in Hamburg, to protest against the lack of money to upgrade some equipment (admittedly, a much less severe problem), we set up some blackboards in the pedestrian district in town and the profs held their lectures there (in the winter). Result: the (justified) complaints got in the news, but no students missed any lectures.

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