Dispute leaves a bitter taste

July 28, 2006

After months of rancour, the industrial dispute that wracked academe has come to an end. The Times Higher asks a cross-section of university staff for their thoughts on a difficult episode

The University and College Union leadership should resign and apologise to their members, the students and, most of all, the support staff. They caused mayhem for 0.6 per cent. The whole thing is a complete victory for the employers, with some universities withdrawing from national agreements.

The disaster is particularly acute since many colleagues thought that the action would genuinely benefit higher education. None will find any similar quests by the union credible in the medium-term future.

The whole action was astonishing. We had leading UK intellectuals - with all their powers of influence and communication - crudely attacking one of the youngest, most financially challenged and stressed-out sections of society. It was like doctors refusing to treat patients. Now if you want to be treated by society as professionals, you have to behave like professionals. So the union has not only failed to obtain a meaningful pay rise, lost the trust of a large part of its membership and is losing a national negotiating position, it has also produced another haemorrhage in the esteem for lecturers in the country.

The people who suffered most, however, were the lowest paid and unsung workers in the sector: the administrative and support staff. They had to pick up the pieces when the lecturers decided to submit marks. That students have degrees and progression results is entirely due to the extraordinary efforts of this group, often working for amazing hours to get marks to the examination boards.

Anonymous professor of geochemistry

I reluctantly and ambivalently held with the action in the hope of a significant breakthrough. So when the union accepted a deal almost indistinguishable from the one previously rejected, I felt angry and let down. Nonetheless, I voted to accept - if we had held out longer, the implications for higher education were catastrophic, regardless of the rights and wrongs.

Josh Cohen
Reader in English Goldsmiths, University of London

I am happy to see the end of the dispute - which I supported and participated in. It was turning very bitter at my institution. The deal is OK over two years but poor over three. To accept 3 per cent now for 2008-09 does not feel right - who knows what inflation will be like then. Just look at the way the current conflict in the Lebanon has pushed up oil prices. I suspect that in two years' time there will be another dispute.

Anonymous computing officer

I was on the picket lines. I held up my banner, I gave out leaflets. At a university court meeting, I stoutly defended the union. Yet I knew all along that even a 23 per cent rise would not make us happy.

Why? The economist Lord Layard argues that an increase in pay results in greater contentment only if the recipient is relatively richer than others. It is not enough to earn more in absolute terms. It is better to make Pounds 30,000 a year, if friends make £20,000, than to have a £100,000 if everyone else is pulling in a £150,000. It is a conclusion supported by many economic studies.

British academics are therefore in trouble. They dutifully run the gauntlet of the education system. They work hard at school; they get their first-class honours degree; they slog for their masters; they endure insecurity and poverty as a research student. And, then, if they are lucky enough to achieve a permanent academic job, they still feel poor.

Even before the strike began, everyone knew that there was no way that our pay would begin to catch up with those of other middle-class professionals.

Friends who worked less hard at university have subsequently soared ahead in the salary stakes as solicitors, doctors or accountants. We may be world experts, but the sad truth is that we are poor compared with our contemporaries. Even a 50 per cent rise would have made little difference.

And, like wronged four-year-olds, we all feel "It's Not Fair!"

Dan Cohn-Sherbok
Professor of Judaism University of Wales Lampeter

I voted against the deal because it did not address the downwards drift in our pay. The 13.1 per cent is illusionary: as an ex-accountant, I also know how to manipulate figures. The university managers have given themselves awards that far exceed ours. But I will give the employers credit for outmanoeuvring us: academics are compliant middle-class people and not used to strikes and collective action.

Anonymous accountancy lecturer

I voted for the pay award because the UCU leadership had betrayed the campaign by instructing us to pass on marks before the ballot result was known, thus surrendering our best weapon. To vote against would have exposed academic staff to further aggressive approaches from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association when we had nothing to restrain their bullying actions. I had no intention of volunteering for a principled but "suicidal" continuation of the conflict.

The leadership was also politically and tactically inept in not insisting that if we were to accept such a low increase then the salaries of vice-chancellors and senior management should likewise adhere to the same rate.

Sally Hunt, the UCU's joint general secretary, said that this was less of a settlement and more of a lull in hostilities. That is correct, but I for one will be recalling who sold us out when the leadership ballot is in progress.

Liam McCann
Senior lecturer in policy studies Lincoln University

I voted for this pay offer, having originally voted against a strike and then reluctantly joining the action. It is a messy, somewhat unsatisfactory compromise, but it is probably the best that could have been achieved in the circumstances. I am realistic about what can be won through industrial action - we don't have widespread UCU membership at our institution, given that most frontline teaching staff are non-unionised PhD students.

Although not marking exams or essays is one of the few forms of leverage we have, I didn't approve of suspending assessment. I would have preferred some suspension of our administrative duties.

But I hold the employers rather than the unions primarily responsible for this and believe that it could have been resolved far earlier. The universities behaved fairly despicably and sought to drag the conflict out for an unnecessarily long time. The people at the top seem to have no conception of what life is like for those nearer the bottom.

Anonymous politics lecturer

I am a young lecturer who has just come back to academe from investment banking and have taken a large pay cut to do so. For me, lecturing is not just a job but a way of life and, although I enjoyed the practical application of law, I always knew that I wanted to teach. I am not adverse to financial hardship, but since my return to academe I have had to move back home with my parents as I cannot afford a mortgage or even to rent a flat.

I work harder now than ever before, not just because of the demands put on us but because I want to do the best for my students. I feel that I ought to get something back and, while I welcome the pay deal, it is not enough. I love teaching and will stick with it. But some are leaving academe for jobs that offer more money, and if this continues standards will fall dramatically. Good teaching leads to a better future for all - we need to be appreciated and to get a fiscal reward representative of our efforts.

Clare Chambers
Lecturer in European Union law Bournemouth University

Considering the significant amount of disruption and heartache for all involved - staff and students - I was disappointed with the outcome.

I voted in favour of the deal because I could not face a new wave of strikes in the coming academic year. But even if the pay rise is not what we had hoped for, by bringing the situation of academics to the nation's attention other - less tangible but important - goals might well have been achieved.

Anonymous lecturer in French

I did not engage in any industrial action. I agree that suspending assessment was the only way to pressure employers, but sometimes the ethics of a situation mean that you shouldn't take your only course of action. Given the potential damage to students I don't think it was justified.

But there were times when I was tempted to join the action, in particular when the employers made quite insulting statements demonstrating their complete disdain for lecturers. The whole episode could have been avoided if the employers had bargained in good faith. However, it was clear that Ucea was out to break the union.

Anonymous senior politics lecturer

I am pleased that we have voted to accept the pay offer. The road travelled by all sides in this dispute has been painfully long and rocky. But it has highlighted the significant gap in the employers' understanding of academic staff concerns, and vice versa.

Alas, the more aggressive measures adopted by some universities will leave a nasty taste in the mouth for some time; we should not be in the business of licking our wounds, but rather keep busy with advancing the prospects of our students to contribute actively to society.

Desmond Tobin
Professor of cell biology Bradford University

The Government expects universities to perform at the highest level with a reducing unit of resource and then expects a little top-up from students to make the difference.

My own vice-chancellor told us that he didn't have the money for a higher pay offer, and I am prepared to take that at face value. But I do not understand why Ucea and the UCU did not make more of university pay when Parliament debated the top-up fees Bill.

It seems clear to me that considerably more funding is needed, and if students cannot or will not pay it, then the Treasury should. I'm a healthy single person with no children, but I think it fair that I contribute considerable sums towards the education of other people's children and towards the healthcare of sick people. Why higher education does not fit into the same pattern beats me.

Anonymous professor of statistics

Our negotiating position was removed when the action was called off prior to the ballot, and many union members must have felt that there was no point in voting to resume the action. However, more than 10,000 members voted to reject the offer - indicative of the continuing strength of feeling.

The pay settlement hardly begins to address the pay gap with comparable professions. It does little justice to the effort and passion with which members pursued the action, and it was therefore particularly galling to discover, once the action had been called off, that the employers are not nearly as cash-strapped as they had claimed.

All in all, members' efforts in holding to the action over many months should not have received such shabby treatment.

Anonymous PGCE lecturer

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments