Why every student ought to back the UCU

Strike action isn’t taken lightly and nor is it born of greed. It is the most sensible option

UCU Strikes

Image: Roger Blackwell

I was dismayed to read, on the front page of a recent edition of Nouse, that students principally objected to the recent UCU strike action on the grounds that over-privileged, over-paid lecturers were harming the educational prospects of disadvantaged students (here treated as consumers, as is all too common). Such anger would be understandable if this were an accurate reflection of the industrial action taking place, but it is not.

First, as noted in Nouse’s earlier article on the subject, pay has not kept pace with inflation in HE since 2009, meaning an effective pay cut has been imposed on the workforce in real terms. Leaving this aside, for the moment, the recent industrial action launched by UCU (voted for by an overwhelming majority of UCU members) has been launched on two principal grounds – the continuation of an outrageous gender pay gap in HE institutions, and an increasing casualisation of the academic workforce, taking place hand-in-hand with a more general marketisation of universities and FE colleges.

By claiming that ‘the dispute revolves around pay for lecturers’, recent depictions of this action deflect attention from the reality of the academic labour force. I am presently a doctoral candidate, albeit one fortunate enough to be funded for my PhD. There are many not so fortunate as me, who depend on teaching income to survive. This situation is exacerbated after the completion of doctoral research. The academic job market is highly competitive at the best of times, and has only become more so in a context of funding cuts (especially, but not exclusively to arts and humanities departments). I personally know (to the extent that I would call these people friends) two people who regularly commute between three different universities to teach on insecure, part-time teaching contracts. This is at some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including some threatening to raise their tuition fees in the aftermath of the Government’s White Paper, and the courses they are teaching are essential, compulsory components of these institutions’ undergraduate degree programmes.

The income from this work is just about enough for these friends to get by. Their situation is far from unrepresentative. The University of York is no stranger to such contracts, normally offered on a part-time basis, which leave the staff in question with neither the time nor the financial means to engage in the ‘world-leading’ research which is sold in marketing brochures to students at this university as the foundation of the teaching they receive. Contractual pay is usually for contact hours. On paper this pay can appear quite high, a postgraduate teacher in the history department at York, for example, receives £21 per taught contact hour. This, however, includes preparation, so we would have to do very little of that if we wished to avoid avoid earning less than minimum wage in real terms. Many of us, of course, do far more preparation than such pay realistically allows for.  Marking for formative work is often unpaid, and pay for marking summative work varies between departments, but is normally calculated at between 10 minutes to half-an-hour per essay. Many students would doubtless be dismayed to think that we spend so little time reading and considering the work which they have given so much dedication, thought, and time. I can assure you that we feel similarly, and in consequence we often spend far more time marking than is allowed for by our contracts. Is it so unreasonable to ask that we be paid for it? It should be telling that it is considered a significant threat that part of UCU’s proposed industrial action is for staff to work ‘to contract’.

Meanwhile, the salaries of senior administrative and executive staff in higher education are ballooning. To take one example, far from an isolated case, the salary of the Vice Chancellor of Wolverhampton University increased in the past year alone by 19%, to £268,000. As the academic blogger Plashing Vole (plashingvole.blogspot.com, generally an excellent inside source on these issues) has pointed out, this is nearly equivalent to the tuition fees of six students for that single year.

If students are angry about industrial action, I would ask them to consider the following questions:

  1. ‘Where are my tuition fees being spent?’

I assure you, it’s not on your teachers.

2. ‘What are the underlying political, economic and social drivers of this situation?’

Look to wider political and economic trends in our society – students need only look to the recent case of Philip Green and the collapse of BHS to see overpaid executives shaft the employees who truly run a business and perform its functions. I could use this space to discuss the impact of neoliberal economic policies on society and equality at great length, but there is neither the space, nor the time, for me to do so here.

3. What are the solutions to this?

The solutions we should pursue are social. It is academics and students that make a university, and when these groups come together with common purpose, great things can be achieved. We, your teachers, don’t enjoy not teaching you. I know that many other postgraduate teachers and faculty at York will agree with me (and I hope my own students would attest) that teaching you is one of the best parts of our job. When we withdraw our labour, we’re neither doing it to harm you, nor because we’re selfish. We feel we have no other option. We can see the direction in which higher education is headed, and know that it not only harms our job security but will, long term, damage the quality of your education. The university is not a marketplace, education not a commodity to be bought and sold. Students and academics together should campaign for a higher education that is well-funded, free at the point of use, and in which financial security and academic freedom are guaranteed both to educators and the educated. This includes campaigning for the scrapping of tuition fees and against the government’s racist Prevent agenda – campaigns which I and many other academics are proud to participate in. But it also requires that you, the student body, support UCU when they call strike action. That you don’t cross our picket lines but stand with us on them, and become informed on the reasons why we are striking, and the long-term implications that these have for your education.

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