Natalie Fenton believes that industrial action is the only option left in the battle to protect the health of higher education.
Being involved in industrial action is an unusual state of affairs for academic and related staff. As a profession, we are not militant and pay is not our top priority. What most of us share is an enthusiasm for our subject and for higher education. We did not come into the profession seduced by high salaries and for years, universities and government have traded on this goodwill.
Vice-chancellors say they can-not pay us more until the government increases funding. But they can, it would seem, finance impressive new buildings and their own substantial salaries. The government says universities are self-governing institutions that should deal with pay themselves, while they pile on yet more quality assessment procedures and increase student numbers.
Those of us caught in the middle deal with the endless bureaucracy, mark hundreds of scripts and struggle to do the work that once attracted us to the job - research, writing and teaching students we once had time to talk to. Over the past decade, the number of graduates has more than doubled and this is set to increase dramatically over the next decade.
Academic and related staff have achieved the highest productivity gains in the whole public sector. This has left us with working hours way out of line with the European Working Time Directive, pay that has eroded year-on-year and a steady increase in the use of fixed-term contracts.
There comes a time when goodwill runs dry. The profession of higher education is not what it was. It is has become an environment of high stress and low reward. Research means short-term outputs for the research assessment exercise, teaching becomes more to do with overheads than intellectual rigour, and there is scant reward from students because there are so many it is difficult to distinguish between them. At the end of it all, you get a wage that is often less than many students will get shortly after graduating.
The best graduates do not stay in higher education because they have debts that would take a lifetime to pay on an academic salary and recognise that non-financial rewards do not compensate.
This year, the Association of University Teachers put in a pay claim requesting acknowledgement of the 36 per cent decline in pay levels and a commitment to restore salaries. We asked for an instalment of 10 per cent this year, with plans for closing the gap in following years. The pay claim included a request for transfer of 50 per cent of staff on fixed-term contracts to permanent contracts (current figures put casualisation at about 41 per cent of academic and related staff); that gender pay differentials should be eliminated (in every grade in every job women are paid less); that more funding be provided for staff development (McDonald's spends more on staff development than the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) and London weighting should be increased.
We were offered 3.5 per cent and nothing else. Not surprisingly, people were so angry it lead to an industrial dispute. This week, the dispute takes the form of an admissions boycott and there is still no sign that the employers will get back to the negotiating table. It is time to force the CVCP to take responsibility. For too long it has relied on the goodwill of staff to carry a system that exploits them.
No one involved in the admissions boycott should feel guilty. It is not our fault, it is not our responsibility. Students may be worried, parents may be angry - I hope they are, because higher education is suffering the consequences of poor management. Regardless of what external assessment procedures tell us, a demotivated, demoralised staff is bad for higher education and for the cultural and economic health of the nation. Other action has been tried and ignored. Universities are not listening to their staff, they are not offering fairness or partnership but damaging still further a system in ill repair. The admissions boycott is happening because it has to. If staff do not count then surely students do? I believe that, if we are committed to the long-term health of higher education, it is our responsibility to take this action and to do everything we can to make ourselves heard.
Natalie Fenton is a lecturer in social sciences at Loughborough University and a member of the Association of University Teachers executive.
Is industrial action over this year's pay claim justified?
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