'I think they've gone to the pub'

February 27, 2004

Phil Baty tours the AUT picket lines to look at the effect of the strike action over pay and conditions

"Is there a strike?" asked Rigas Oikonomou, a Greek masters' student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, waiting outside the university's main entrance off the Strand in London. "I didn't notice."

The LSE was one of a number of top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, that the Association of University Teachers promised would be "brought to a standstill" on Tuesday, as part of a national strike across the English sector. But by the afternoon on a cold and wet day, the shutdown had not materialised. There was not a single picket at any of the LSE's entrances and students were going about their business as usual.

"I knew there was some sort of action today but I've been to lectures as normal," said Young-ah Kim, a 33-year-old Korean who is studying for an MSc in media and communication at LSE.

A single AUT campaign poster, taped up but sodden and sagging on a nearby wall, declared: "Nationwide Action Against Variable Pay." It may have been an improvement on the 1970s AUT campaign slogan, "Rectify the Anomaly", but it still did not appear to inspire support for this week's strikes for better pay and conditions.

Ms Kim said: "Variable pay? I know professors are badly paid and I would support them on that. But why is variable pay a problem? The best universities should be able to pay the best salaries to attract the best lecturers."

The AUT was keen to point out that the pay framework on offer from employers -alongside the 6.44 per cent two-year pay deal - would force the collapse of national pay levels.

Some AUT activists were concerned that the "variability" message had come from a desire for joint action with the National Union of Students, which is protesting this week against variable tuition fees. "AUT believes that 'marketisation' of higher education will result in variable fees, and variable fees will undoubtedly lead to variable pay," the AUT says in its campaign literature.

Did this message divert attention from the basic issue of low pay that is likely to rally the public, they asked. Even the prime minister has acknowledged a 40 per cent shortfall in wages suffered by university staff.

The AUT released startling figures suggesting that some academics would lose tens of thousands of pounds under a proposed career ladder that would increase the hurdles they had to overcome to reach respectable levels of pay.

At King's College London, the picket line was similarly deserted, although there was evidence of earlier activity: a handful of leaflets slowly disintegrating in a puddle outside the main entrance, and a number of "official picket" posters.

Gajan Pillai, a maths and computing student, had a lecture cancelled, but went into college anyway to complete some coursework. His friend, City University student Gaj Rajasegran, went to the two lectures and the tutorial he was expecting, as timetabled.

At University College London, the picket line was also deserted. "I think they've gone to the pub," a porter said.

Earlier the same afternoon it was all so different. In the warmth and comfort of the Trades Union Congress' sleek modern conference facilities at its Great Russell Street headquarters, about 200 people had gathered for a rally.

Sally Hunt, the AUT general secretary, reported a high turnout for a strikes in Wales the previous day, and predicted a strong showing for the UK-wide day of action with the NUS on Wednesday.

A 60-strong local union in the west of England, she said, had got 30 members out on the picket line. And the union had had so many membership requests in recent weeks that it had had to open a new membership office at the union's headquarters.

"Every single member of this union is willing to stand up and say we will not accept poverty wages and we will not accept weasel words from a government that says it is serious about higher education. We are sending a strong message to employers that what we are doing is meaningful, collective and strongly supported," she said.

An AUT spokesman said it was common for pickets to end at lunchtime and added that thousands of lectures had been cancelled at hundreds of institutions during the week.

Employers said 56 per cent of affected campuses reported no noticeable impact.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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