Economic lessons: why lecturers striking over summer adds up

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.”

6 comments

  1. We should support the UCU all the way. Solidarity is the only thing that gets results. Supporting our lecturers means that we can avoid prolonged industrial action (like that still ongoing in France) and get our academics and University staff the money they deserve.

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  2. I totally agree that the “us against them” mentality between lecturers and students is naive and wrong. Students should support the people that provide their education and this is not a case of lecturers striking against students – the image of this being the case is being created and seems like some kind of divide-and-rule policy.

    However, I totally disagree that in the reality of modern politics strike action is the way to get things done. It is proven by various studies that being able to apply pressure in the right places behind-the-scenes is far more successful. Strike action has a major danger of alienating your possible supporters (in this case students as we are seeing) and the government. It can and proves to be counterproductive. Look at France for example – the number of strikes there is ridiculous and success rates are extremely low. The way for lecturers to be successful is to unite as a single trade union/pressure group and approach government in the corridors of power. Doctors do it through the BMA and are highly influential. Teachers and lecturers are too fragmented – they need to speak with one voice.

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  3. If lecturers are happy, they teach us better. I think that “us against them” can often be an appropriate attitude if they strike instead of giving lectures but we should instead be encouraging them to take as much action as possible *outside of student time*. We should lobby on behalf of lecturers, as students, and show our support for them getting the rights they deserve. Hopefully the strikes, etc., will not affect students! :)

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  4. I agree with Lewis. Whilst we should support the UCU in their aims in this case (just as many of their members intend to support us in our campaign for ethical investment), supporting strike action which would likely be less effective than other means of campaigning and would be detrimental to students (particularly finalists) is something we cannot do.

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  5. Universities could continue to enhance their educational services with a static or slightly declining budget. This is due to the exponential utility stemming from development of educational sciences and supporting technologies (the information composing a lecture can be shared, collaboratively, at virtually no cost). Textbooks can be freely provided for a small fee from sciencedirect.com and, although academics hate it, google scholar has unbarred the door to `the literature’. Furthermore, it is appears sensible to send teaching academics on an emergency course of intensive didactic instruction so they can begin to understand their job and take baby steps to use the available technology.

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