Don's Diary

September 22, 1995

THURSDAY. To the Scottish Office for the first meeting between the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Michael Forsyth, the new Secretary of State for Scotland. As Scottish Office education minister, Forsyth was hated by the teachers . . . and everyone else. Now he is a "listening" Secretary of State, engaged in a charm offensive. BBC Scotland cameras are there to record our arrival.

Extraordinary meeting. He runs through our list of two dozen demands and agrees to about two-thirds of them, mostly bringing the unions into discussion on training and economic policy. That is certainly a U-turn. But the news on public spending is bleak. My cue to call for an end to the remorseless "efficiency gains" in higher education.

He wants a joint press conference with STUC general secretary, Campbell Christie. On my way home the car radio reports "peace breaks out between Michael Forsyth and the unions". When I get home, BBC Reporting Scotland includes me shaking a smiling Forsyth's hand. All over too quickly for my seven-year-old to see Daddy on the telly. But my street credibility in Scotland is finished.

FRIDAY. Calls from successive members who are deep into a variety of university procedures. Dr T has finally agreed to an extraordinarily generous early retirement package. It would be good if he were not so committed to his research. The university's anxiousness to lose him seems to be mainly because of a personality clash with his head of department.

Dash out to American Express office to buy Deutschmarks for tomorrow's trip. At home my wife and I give my in-laws an exhaustive briefing on what they have to do to keep the kids in line for the next nine days.

SATURDAY. At last I can relax over an overpriced can of Dortmunder Union on the three-hour train journey from Hamburg to the island of Sylt, where I am attending the annual higher education summer school of the German education union, GEW. Our luggage is still at Heathrow, so we have only the essentials we managed to purchase in the last ten minutes before the shops closed. Suitcase arrives at l0.30 pm with a courier in a taxi.

SUNDAY. Disaster. No visible means of making coffee in the room. No way of buying coffee until much much later. At breakfast we meet a regular attender who brings his own coffee machine. We hire bicycles and cycle to List, have a beer in Germany's northernmost bar and buy a coffee machine, filters, coffee in northernmost supermarket. Carry it back against a strong headwind which turns into a storm. Although we are soaked through, the company in the little hut where we and 20 others take shelter is certainly gemutlich.

MONDAY. The summer school begins with an overview of the issues facing the GEW in higher education and research. Some of the things they are doing are innovative. They produce a handbook on student financial support and have co-operated with the Suddeutsche Zeitung to run a student helpline. They support seminars for university teachers on quality of teaching and learning. But they face just as serious problems as we do. In the east a lot of short-term contracts set up as a holding operation after unification will soon be running out and the future is unclear. Generally, they have the problems of increasing use of fixed-term contracts and a very hierarchical structure. "There are always people directly affected, individually isolated and set against one another . . ." Sounds like back home!

TUESDAY. I join a working group on Drittmittelbeschaftigte, the odd jargon word for contract research staff. Quite an eye-opener to discover that they have even fewer rights in Germany. A 1985 law specifically excludes them from the normal, generous rights enjoyed by other German workers. Martin Grabert of the European Coordination Office of the German research organisations tells us that three-year contracts are becoming the norm across Europe. We have to look Europewide at least for the solution to the problems faced by contract staff. I report on the limited advances we seem to be making in United Kingdom higher education, while reflecting on how fragile even these may be.

WEDNESDAY. Gerd Kohler introduces the international day with a round-up of a broad sweep of developments, from the draft Unesco recommendations on the status of teaching personnel in higher education to the privatisation proposals of the World Bank. The teaching unions have come together in the new Education International, 250 unions from 150 countries representing 22 million workers. Gerd is in there, fighting our corner as chair of the sectoral committee for higher and further education. When is AUT finally going to join, I wonder?

Then it is over to the international guests, from Sweden, Finland and myself from Scotland. We each explain the structure of the academic profession in our countries, the conditions of employment and negotiating arrangements. We all do it in German. For me it is the culmination of weeks of preparation. As I finally let rip in German and they actually laugh at my jokes, it is - at last exhilarating.

Assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers based in Edinburgh.

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