Manchester vice-president lashes out at staff in marking boycott

Keith Brown likens academics taking part in ‘shameful’ industrial action to those who ‘build their lives on the shattered dreams of others’

七月 21, 2023
The University Of Manchester
Source: iStock

A senior leader has been criticised for likening academics taking part in the UK’s marking and assessment boycott to those who “build their lives on the shattered dreams of others”.

Keith Brown, who will step down shortly as vice-president of the University of Manchester and dean of its Faculty of Humanities, lashes out at colleagues who have taken part in the industrial action in a farewell message to staff, screenshots of which were shared online.

In the message, Professor Brown laments that some students in his faculty had been unable receive their final degree award because of the boycott, in which University and College Union members are participating across the UK.

“Within our faculty, responsibility for this shameful situation, Shakespeare’s ‘very midsummer madness’, lies with a relatively small number of academic staff concentrated in [the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures] and [the School of Social Sciences], that is now falling day by day,” Professor Brown writes.

“Those academic staff participating in the marking and assessment boycott are heavily concentrated in certain departments, even though pay and conditions are the same across the university. This suggests an issue with the culture and values of those departments.

“While those participating in the marking boycott are conducting legitimate industrial action, this action is hurting our students. Robert Kennedy’s phrase about being too willing to excuse those people who ‘build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others’ comes to mind.”

Professor Brown’s comments were widely criticised by union members on social media.

“Responsibility for this shameful situation lies not on those willing to take risks and make huge sacrifices to protect the future of HE, but with senior managers who have built their careers on the marketisation of HE. There is indeed a problem with culture and values,” tweeted Anna Strowe, a lecturer in translation and interpreting studies at Manchester.

The Manchester UCU branch said Professor Brown's message “displays an appalling level of contempt for staff at the university as well as betraying a lack of understanding of trade unionism and the nature of the present dispute”.

“Such statements undermine trust, goodwill and industrial relations at the university,” a spokeswoman told Times Higher Education. “This disdainful approach towards staff strains relationships between us and management, and is likely to undermine teaching colleagues’ preparations for the next academic year.”

Professor Brown and the University of Manchester have been approached for comment.

Thousands of students across the country have been left unable to graduate by the marking boycott, which is tied to a national dispute over pay.

In his message, Professor Brown says the boycott has left students facing “stress, anxiety and disappointment at a time in their lives which should be about celebration”.

He adds praise for staff who have carried out marking, “often facing truculent and aggressive behaviour within departments and at exam boards. I am very sorry to hear of colleagues who have endured unwarranted pressure to the point of shedding tears.”



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Reader's comments (7)

Personally, I think he is right. Students' prospects and contribution to society through research and teaching is the priority. Pay and conditions are secondary for most academics who see it all as vocational surely. The marketisation of academia has confused a lot of academics across the levels about what they are there for, and the endless strikes are petty and just as a bad as marketisation. The strikes over pensions for example, where they are much higher than most receive other professional areas (not to mention salaries). Funny how so many academics can't see their own hypocrisy. Well the students can see it, as can members of wider society, and universities depend on both.
Pay and conditions may be secondary to you if you come from a wealthy background or have your parents chip in every month. Being an academic is a profession just like any other, I'm expected to perform my duties well and above, I expect to be compensated for my time.
The idea that academics have a "vocation" and should therefore accept substandard pay and conditions is a blind. We're highly educated, highly specialized professionals and deserve to be compensated accordingly. The fact is that UK higher ed is failing badly and losing its attractiveness as a place to work. Personally, I'm going back to North American academia, where pay is substantially higher, work loads lower, and staff still treated more as experts and professionals than replaceable cogs. I am quite certain that those that are able will do the same. UK higher ed will likely see a flight of global talent in the coming years unless people in Dean Brown's position get it together and reform the sector--and I am not optimistic that will happen.
'University teaching is a sacred vocation' is the standard Tory line when there is industrial action, going back to the Thatcher years. Note that the same Tory govts that have said this have at other times peddled the alternative message: 'There's nothing special about Unis, or what they do, it's a bums-on-seats business, output vs input, so cram the students in and stop whingeing, you're just a fancily-titled overpaid widget-tinkerer'. You might think that the said govts want to have it both ways, and that the common denominator is that they hate Unis and the people who work in them. And as for that old line that commenter OPR repeated about 'gold-plated pensions' - it's not true (teachers do better) and was historically the trade-off for crap salaries, which weren't globally competitive even before the 25% devaluation over the last 15 years. My US equivalent has always made twice what I do. When I was offered a job as a administrator at a UK scientific research charity nearly 25 years ago, at a lower level or responsibility than I had in my mid-level academic post. the salary was a 20% increase, and with a better pension to boot. Jobs in the pharmaceutical industry ditto. Basically, we've always been badly paid in UK academia, and it's got much worse since 2010. For a while job security, a solid pension, sympathetic management and the freedom to set some of your own work agenda compensated for that. Now that all those things are disappearing... well, 'you do the math', as the saying goes.
And it's even worse for most in Professional Services staff. Pitiful pay compared to an equivalent job in the private sector, barely any career progression opportunities and not even a consideration in most discussions regarding pay and benefits despite being equally involved in the industrial action. I also wonder if the Professor will refuse the reinstatement of his pension benefits or any improved pay offer given they will have been won by those he is most critical of ?
I've just retired from Manchester University and didn't take part in the marking boycott. There has historically been a trade off between salary and pension, but the proposed new pension arrangements are a step change in its attractiveness. From 2026, annual increases on benefits accrued from 2022, will be capped at 2.5%, whatever the average wage rise or rate of inflation. Were I a young lecturer, this is what would most concern me and I have some sympathy with them. As over 2/3 of my benefits were accrued before 2011, my annual increase for this year, calculated from a CPI inflation rate of 10.1%, was 9.3%. From the employer's point of view - how much it costs to employ someone, its contribution will be, I think, around 28% of salary and has risen sharply over recent years. Just to set the record straight, using CPI, the top of the lecturer scale fell in real terms, by 12% from 2012 to 2022: according to Radio 4's MoreorLess, the same fall as teachers enjoyed.
I've just come across the July 19th article on the reversal of the USS proposals. It appears the employers contribution may fall rather than rise from the current 25% and the the strict 2.5% cap on annual increase may be made more generous.