I am sure we have all done the maths. I have four hours contact time a week, I’m paying three grand a year, that’s a thousand pounds a term. Thus, my lecturer is getting… they must be loaded! But even as we repeat this naïve conversation to ourselves, we must recognise that lecturers, like everyone else during this economic climate, are a long way from the complacent ivory towers of our imaginations.
The outlook for higher education staff is looking bleak in the face of further cuts to government funding, which ministers wrongly hope will aid the failing economy. The reality will be a tightening of the noose that has been hanging loosely around the neck of higher education for some time. The sector is suffering as a result of Alistair Darling’s decision to slash next year’s education budget by £150 million. As 130 universities nationwide receive annual government funding, job cuts loom on the horizon.
Furthermore, the proposed cuts will considerably lessen the number of students admitted into university. The dream of half of all young adults being in Higher Education by 2010 seems further than ever. There appears to be little hope for the Prime Minister’s promise that “education would not become a victim of the recession.”
The funding cuts could not come at a worse time for lecturers. The University and College Union (UCU) are already threatening strike action against the University and College Employers Agency (UCEA) over a pay rise that has failed to materialise. The 8 percent pay claim made earlier this year is being met with an insubstantial offer of 0.3 percent. Strikes could see a return to 2006, when lecturers boycotted exams, marking and assessment, halting student progression in the Summer term.
It is unsurprising that NUS President Wes Streeting condemned industrial action, stating students needed it “like a hole in the head.” His comment, however, was not voiced against the motives of the UCU. To declare his comments as foreshadowing a partition of the traditional alliance held between the UCU and NUS is an exaggeration. Streeting is simply maintaining his position of authority by speaking, if selfishly, purely in the interests of students.
Streeting’s alternative agenda of cooperating “around the table to end strike action” will hopefully lead to a joint demand by staff and students for job security. The hope is for national agreements that will protect jobs and secure the future of higher education. Whilst it is in the interests of students to avoid disruption to learning, it is of higher importance to guarantee the stability of academic departments and maintain a low staff-to-student ratio.
I cannot help, however, but view this idea of calm negotiation sceptically, even if I, like everyone else, would like to avoid the chaos of strike action. The niggling reality exposes the truth that little in modern politics is achieved through quiet negotiation, and that hard-hitting strike action may be the only way for academic staff to protect themselves. If it comes to industrial action, students must be supportive. Strikes by academic staff aren’t a rebellion against students, but against government and university employers whose mismanagement of finances has led to the instability of hundreds of jobs.
Sadly, in a war between employer and employee, it may be students who suffer in the short term. But surely, we can withstand this suffering if it results in long-term stability for deserving lecturers. Obviously, universities are by no means immune to economic struggles. Nevertheless, by squeezing cash out of education the government cannot expect to furnish a ‘brighter future’ with a well-educated workforce. Education is surely one of the best investments a government can make. As the UCU have perceptively coined, “we must defend jobs in order to defend education.”