Bitter dispute that split colleagues

June 9, 2006

The impact on students was a key stumbling block, writes Chloe Stothart

Bob Lawson-Peebles, a senior lecturer at the School of English at Exeter University, resigned from the Association of University Teachers because he believed that the action over the pay dispute would hurt students.

"Maybe under other conditions and in another environment the strike would be appropriate, but I do not think it is when the people hurt are innocent third parties.

"I left the AUT when it became clear that the action was inevitable, but I still believe in the value of the union. That was why I was a member for some 25 years. I understand the reasons for the action. Academics are appallingly badly paid. It's about time that promises to improve our pay, made some time ago, are now kept.

"Ideally, the union should negotiate a 'no-strike' agreement, with additional pay for it. I'm particularly uneasy about the present extended partial action because it does greater harm to students.

"Relations between AUT and non-AUT colleagues in the School of English are amicable, because we are aware of the dilemma that faces each one of us.

"But I imagine the effect on some universities has been quite devastating, especially those that are teaching-intensive.

"Also, in some places vice-chancellors have been quite tough on staff, and that is likely to leave resentment against senior management teams, in addition to resentments over the poor level of pay. I think, too, that the dispute could lead to the breakdown of national bargaining, which may well further exacerbate the poor staff relations in some places."

Lawson-Peebles' colleague at the School of English, lecturer Philip Schwyzer is an AUT member who took part in the action.

"I found a compelling case for this dispute in terms of how far lecturers' pay has fallen behind.

"It's difficult for academics to see themselves as workers in many ways and to think about withholding their labour, but the marks are the closest product of our labour.

"We cannot say we won't do research or write any articles because that would have almost no immediate impact.

"My students in English have been worried but supportive. I feel concerned about the rumours of universities in various places to graduate students on insufficient assessment.

"The worry is that it would affect the students more negatively to have a degree seen as suspect and not as good as degrees from other years than graduating slightly behind schedule.

"In the department it doesn't look as if it is going to have a damaging effect on relations. The half not participating in the action could say they would second-mark stuff among themselves, but they have not done that.

"At present we have a very good relationship with the management of our university. I am not someone who feels there will be a long-standing negative impact.

"It is healthy for everyone to be reminded that academics are in a labour market and not following some kind of special calling like the priesthood."

Postgraduate in catch-22

Shauna Marr, a PhD student at the Institute of Education at Stirling University, has been marking students’ work while some colleagues declined.

"In our department, some people are supporting the strike and others are not, but everybody is expected to tolerate both views.

"The contracts they have do not necessitate them marking so it is not considered impolitic to take the work from them to mark.

"The chief examiner approached me and said would I be willing to mark, and I asked him what the politics of the situation were. The politics have been handled sensitively and I am not being asked to mark for striking colleagues.

"But if the chief examiner had said: ‘Would you mark for striking colleagues?’ — chances are I’d say yes. I used to be a further education lecturer and union member, but even then I would have marked students’ work and considered there were better ways of resolving the situation.

"I appreciate the standard of living has gone down compared with other professions. I am going into that profession and I would like to see wages improve. But what do you do? Do you hack off your future employer by saying you won’t mark? Or do you alienate yourself from colleagues in a more secure position?"

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