Mining for salt can be a fractious task

November 29, 1996

ONCE UPON a time numbers mattered more for what they symbolised than for what they counted. Even in our hard-headed age, their symbolic power is latent.

Take a couple of fractions, like 1/260th and 1/365th for example. In some of us, they will evoke immediate feelings, whether of solidarity or of anger.

Pragmatically speaking, these fractions refer to sums of money. Some institutions decided to dock 1/365th of an annual salary for last Tuesday's one day's strike. Others calculated less generously: since we do not work weekends, we work only 260 days a year. A day's pay is therefore 1/260th of our salary. However, the choice between the two was not simply financial. Administrators who chose to signal their sympathy with the strikers docked the smaller fraction. Others missed the opportunity to foster goodwill.

The choice of fraction functioned also as a symbol. Some academics, incensed by the fraction of 1/260th, chose to argue their case on practical grounds: it is monstrously unfair to assume that we work only weekdays. The present dispute, while technically about pay, has been triggered by workloads that have become impossible to contain.

We work seven days a week; and if we strike, we should lose one day's pay alone. This argument, based squarely on justice, merits sympathy. But I want to suggest that the problem lies much deeper than this argument recognises. For the two fractions symbolise contrasting attitudes to when and how we work, to why we work, and to who should make important decisions about our work. Between those two attitudes there lies a gulf.

The question is this: are we being paid a salary or wages? A salary is given to allow one to live. (It is literally a "salt allowance", from the Latin sal.) Those who are paid a salary are not paid for the work that they do. They are paid, rather, to allow them to work. Are we teachers and scholars being paid for the work that we do, or to allow us to work? The difference may sound small; but its implications are vast.

At bottom, the payment of a salary is an act of trust. The pupils trust the teacher to know how to teach them; the patients trust the doctor to know how to cure them. Salaries are earned by experts in a complex task, where neither the methods nor the results can straightforwardly be assessed by the payer.

It is necessary to trust that the experts know their job and that they desire to do it to the best of their ability. Furthermore, trust is the only basis upon which this type of employment can function, for non-experts are not capable of making the relevant judgements.

Some years ago, I wrote to the administrators of the British Academy protesting about the way that they handled postgraduate grants. I received in reply a marvellously rude letter, which contained the phrase "he who pays the piper calls the tune". I refrained from writing back to ask the gentleman in question whether he ordered his doctor which medicines to prescribe.

At the deepest level, the crisis in higher education is a crisis of trust. The politicians do not trust us to use their money well; so they initiate cumbersome and expensive systems to check up on us at every turn. (Consequently, they generate rivalry and distrust among, and even, tragically, within, our institutions.) The lack of trust is revealed, for example, by the constitution of the Dearing committee, where administrators and industrialists have been preferred to active teachers and scholars. A crisis of trust leads to a crisis of power. Who makes the decisions in our colleges and universities?

Another deep-seated reason for our frustration is that we are losing more and more control over the concrete details of how we do our jobs: who we admit, how we teach, how we examine and how we organise our time.

This change is, naturally, reflected in language: an administrator is one who serves an institution; a manager is one who runs it.

In the 1950s, the German theologian Karl Rahner wrote a penetrating reflection upon the proposed reduction of the working week to five days. People wanted more recreation, he argued, not because work was harder than it used to be, but because it was less creative, more mechanical, more soulless.

Traditionally, scholars have seen their vocation as a whole, as something that engaged their attention and devotion, directly or indirectly, for much of their waking lives. Now we are being asked to treat our work as a series of disconnected jobs, selected, assessed and controlled by outsiders. In short, we are being treated as wage-labourers. Inevitably, before long, we will begin to limit ourselves to a real, rather than a mythical, five-day week.

Margaret Atkins is lecturer in theology, Trinity and All Saints' College, Leeds.

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