WHENTHE subject of unemployment comes up in universities, it is usually related to an academic study or the job prospects of academics. However, two significant developments - the Employment Chapter of the Amsterdam treaty and the joint churches' recently published inquiry Unemployment and the Future of Work - point to an urgent need for us to look at job generation in higher education.
It is easy to dismiss the Employment Chapter, which elevates the need to tackle unemployment to the same level as economic regeneration, as so much rhetoric. Three months ago such a chapter would have been blocked by our own Government and only the European Trades Union Council and the Swedish government were pressing for it, recognising that social cohesion and economic union could not be achieved if Europe had 32 million people without jobs.
At the same time, the churches' report, published during the general election campaign, called for more radical solutions to unemployment than any of the major political parties. The report states that total unemployment in the UK could be 4.5 million in the summer of 1996, not 2.3 million as stated in the Government's labour force survey. The reduction in demand for unskilled labour has led to particularly high rates of unemployment among men, young people and ethnic minorities. The report emphasises the increasing disparity in disposable income between the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent and the stark contrast between the employed and the powerless who have to sell their labour in a buyer's market.
In addition to calling for a national minimum wage and more public sector employment financed by higher taxation, the churches' report recommends giving priority in education to basic skills for all young people and a job creation programme for the long-term unemployed.
When the authors of the report met the TUC general council last month, there was a recognition that trade unions and the churches had not succeeded in helping the unemployed to defend themselves against previous government policy, and that it was vital to keep the issue high on the political agenda.
Higher education must take its share of responsibility too. Whenever I speak about European developments I can guarantee that the first question is about how to get money out of the various pots of gold that lie in Brussels. Universities only see Europe through the eyes of Leonardo or any EU money which will make up for their own funding shortfall and this is entirely understandable. However, it is also important to do more work on job generation in universities.
The opportunities offered by Gordon Brown's "new deal" and the need to create 250,000 jobs to help young people off the dole must be seized by university managements. We desperately need more support staff in universities in all areas but particularly clerical, domestic services, maintenance, printing, grounds, security and technical. All of these areas could provide jobs and basic skills training and would help to make universities part of our communities instead of baronial hosts, which is how many are perceived by their townsfolk.
In many towns the university, town hall, and hospital are often the only major employers. The danger is that universities will think themselves above these developments and only see job creation as an opportunity to create academic and research jobs. While education is our first priority, we must also generate jobs in areas requiring basic skills, because the need is there and it would benefit universities, the community and social progress. The Westminster pot of gold should not be sniffed at.
Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Instituteof Education Students' Union, and a member of the UNISONnational executive, TUC General Council, and the European TUC Executive.