Hitting the customer is a bad idea

November 22, 1996

No one can blame people who work for universities for being fed up and angry. They have had a rotten deal for years. Their salaries have shadowed the retail price index and not average earnings - and their latest offer does not even match headline inflation. Morale is at rock bottom and they feel they must do something to bring their case before what used laughingly to be called the court of public opinion.

What can they do? They can demonstrate but will anyone notice? They can get their couple of minutes on the evening news and the Today programme, but it will all be forgotten within a day or two. They are in the classic bind of public sector workers whose nominal employers do not control the purse-strings. The universities have been screwed down so tightly by the Treasury that they have been forced to make one derisory offer after another, making themselves look silly and unable to act like decent employers.

But where is all this leading to? A public demonstration may let off steam but nobody kids themselves the Government will take a blind bit of notice. They can cause inconvenience - some but not much - but vice chancellors, who know they cannot do anything about it, will bear this with equanimity and wait for the next manifestation of pent-up rage.

The big danger is that when the one-day strike proves a damp squib the "For God's sake Do Something" party will take over. Even if there is nothing constructive to do, there will be impassioned calls for action, as if action for its own sake were what was needed. Was it not the wise Clark Kerr of the University of California who responded on one famous occasion: "Don't just do something, stand there," when the alternative was to make a bad situation worse?

The talk is of going from a one-day strike to more damaging forms of direct action. It would not be difficult for university teachers to hold universities to ransom if they were united and resolute. Some would like to block the admissions procedures and throw the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service into confusion. There will be more threats to refuse to set and mark examinations. Libraries and laboratories could be closed. All these sanctions depend on the willingness of sufficient university staff to interpret their professional duty so perversely as to allow themselves to engage in acts which would have damaging effect on students, present or potential.

Many who sympathise with the university teachers' cause and wish them well will urge them not to go down this road. They will remember how much lasting damage the school teachers' unions did to their own cause by the protracted disputes of the mid-1980s.

The teachers' leaders insisted they were acting on behalf of their pupils when they brought schools to a standstill. They had a difficult task to persuade the public. They were sending children home with minimum warning and interrupting the continuity of their learning. It was hard to convince parents that they were doing this to safeguard, not damage, the quality of children's education.

Initially the unions seemed successful in winning parental support - they acquired some outspoken allies. But the facts began to speak for themselves: working parents found it extremely inconvenient to have their children kept out of school or sent home at short notice. There was no sudden revulsion of feeling against the teachers, but after a time parents came to regard their actions (and inactions) as unbecoming for members of a profession which claimed to act in the best interests of children. Rightly or wrongly, they expected more from professionals than from members of other trade unions.

The workings of public opinion are anything but clear. Most parents probably invoked a plague on both the teachers and their employers. Predictably, the media turned against the teachers and by the time Kenneth Baker stepped in with draconian legislation to take pay and conditions into his own hands, the teachers' unions had suffered a crushing defeat. The result was to remove what little influence they might have had on the Education Reform Act and much of what followed from it.

It is virtually certain that when the one-day strike is over there will be loud demands for dramatic action that impinges directly on students and, through them, on their families. If such action is taken it will not be as part of a measured strategy with clear and attainable aims. It will not change Government policy. That much is predictable. So too is the equivocal response they would get from Labour if they disrupt universities in the run-up to the election.

What is certain is that the professional reputation of all university teachers would suffer. and to make it worse, their solidarity would be sorely strained. They have genuine grievances; but if they now turn on the students, they will simply make a bad situation worse.

Stuart Maclure was editor of The Times Educational Supplement from 1969 to 1989.

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