Fighting in defence of sector

November 24, 2011

I was pleased to see Sally Hunt's rebuttal ("Fighting the good fight", 10 November) of your recent editorial "Bread, not political poses" (3 November). Especially timely was her reminder that the University and College Union is one of the few unions increasing its total membership. This is predominantly a result of our effective industrial strategy of resistance to attacks on our members' pensions, jobs and conditions of employment.

The false distinction between "bread" and "politics" made in the leading article is clearly exposed by the strikes planned for 30 November. University staff will be taking action as part of a united defence of pensions, a consequence of the government's attempt to attack the pay, pensions, jobs and conditions of all public sector workers. Indeed, the government's higher education White Paper rejects the notion that universities have any relation to the "public sector" in the first place.

The White Paper will make students pay for their studies with a lifetime of debt. It will create a market for university places in which branding and auditing take precedence over teaching and research. It states that "unviable" universities will be allowed to go to the wall.

Private providers will have access to state funding in the form of student loans. They will be encouraged to compete with, and eventually to take over, public institutions, through the driving-down of costs by cutting pay, pensions, jobs and, above all, educational quality. The experience of the for-profit universities in the US should serve as a warning. Ominously, Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, has floated three "radical" options in response to the White Paper ("Charitably minded watchdog frets over for-profits", timeshighereducation.co.uk, 10 November): "Doing something really different, maybe going private...withdrawing from all face-to-face teaching, going virtual...having a full focus on education and not being concerned about...research."

The political attack waged by the government, and the refusal of employers to counter it, will make things harder for individual staff on all the key issues identified by Hunt - funding cuts, pensions, privatisation, research, career paths. In this context, it is essential that we see the actions planned for 30 November as the beginning of a defence of our universities that unites all those who care about higher education. Unless we do this, the sector faces meltdown, rendering any debate about the internal workings of the union an irrelevance.

Mark Campbell, London Metropolitan University UCU (Chair), UCU National Executive Committee

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