Elite or not, they need a union

July 30, 2004

Bruce Charlton and Peter Andras's article "Why top academics need personal agents, not a mass trade union" (Why I..., July 23) is a curious piece.

They begin with an exaggerated description of the extent to which "most academics will function as replaceable 'units'" while an elite of academics will be employed on a personal basis. They then draw the conclusion that these elite academics (it's not clear if they include themselves in this happy group) need personal agents (like sports personalities), not a more powerful trade union.

Their article begs some questions. Trade unions do not seek simply to improve pay, terms and conditions. We have a crucial role in improving the entire academic environment. Charlton and Andras' proposed agents would not enable "elite" academics to work in an environment in which academic freedom underpins their work, in which racism and sexism don't impede access to the best jobs (or any jobs), and in which the global resources going to academia are sufficient for all parts of the sector.

It's no accident that the most highly paid sports stars are members of a trade union (the Professional Footballers' Association) alongside their "replaceable unit" colleagues in the third division.

In fact, the fortunes of the "elite" academics are inextricably bound up with the rest of the sector. They do not work in isolation. In some form or other they are part of a team or teams. If the pay of the colleagues they are dependent on is pathetic, as it largely is, then that will impact on them. If access to university for working-class students, access to reasonably well-paid and secure jobs for women or ethnic minority academics, or access to research funding are solely at the whim of the market, then all will suffer. If intellectual property rights are mangled, or a bullying culture exists in a department, that is an issue for every academic.

Far from sneering at "the vestigial sense of scholarly solidarity", we should welcome the fact it survived two decades of Thatcherite onslaught and should seek to make it more effective. A combined union could really make a difference.

Paul Mackney
General secretary
Natfhe

Sally Hunt
General secretary
Association of University Teachers

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