Neither pay nor morale will improve if you give in

May 12, 2006

Chaminda Jayanetti, a final-year student, urges lecturers to continue their action for the good of academe

Almost eight out of ten students oppose the exam boycott. Ouch! I don't envy the tutor who must consider that four fifths of those he teaches hold him responsible for damaging their degrees. Under fire from non-academic union negotiators, under pressure from universities threatening to dock pay and shunned by angry students worried about their qualifications, some academics must be tempted to throw in the towel, set exams and cut a local deal.

On behalf of the fifth of students who were lost in the newsprint - please don't.

As a student who backs the boycott, I guess I'm an endangered species. But we are a meaningful minority who have considered the arguments and concluded that the unions have right on their side, not just for themselves, but ultimately for those studying as well. As an academic, you are taking industrial action over something that matters more than just pay, something fundamental for every student - the accountability of universities.

We students are often told that money has been promised for bursaries, for libraries, for the survival of departments and suchlike. Similarly, our lecturers were promised that at least a third of tuition-fee income would be used to improve academic pay. If universities are allowed to break their word to academics who have given up trying to hold them to it, then they could consider themselves free to break the promises they made to us students, too.

Some students complain that academics aren't always available or as helpful as they might be. It's hard to feel sympathy for industrial action in those circumstances. But while low pay cannot account for all such cases, surely demoralisation affects what academics can provide their students. Given that, abandoning the action will simply perpetuate a situation in which we students don't get the support we expect.

You are taking action for a reason. At a local Association of University Teachers branch meeting in December, I heard the enormous frustration of academics faced with universities reneging on the promises made over tuition fee income. They argued that strikes would be brushed off as they had been before. The unanimous view was that an assessment boycott, painful though it would be, was the only way academics could make themselves heard.

So what has changed to warrant abandoning the action? The pay claim is still justified - it's not as if the 40 per cent decline over the past 20 years has suddenly been clawed back. The action is still the only way of achieving that goal. The 12.6 per cent offer shows that the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association is still not treating this issue seriously enough.

Of course, students are suffering. But this is because Ucea has played games until the exam season. Only last week, I spoke to a student union official who had voted to oppose the action. He had no knowledge of the wasted months in which the academic unions were excluded from pay talks.

When I told him, he soon transferred culpability for the crisis to Geoffrey Copland and co.

Ucea has shown that it will use any tactic it can to duck the issue. It has consistently tried to play off students against staff, AUT against Natfhe, non-setters against non-markers. Although academics have a duty to do what they can to help students by giving feedback, providing references and keeping us updated, it is solid action that will force Ucea, even at this late stage, to make a serious offer and end the dispute. I feel almost traitorous to evangelise against the local deals that so many students desperately want. But tempting as they are, they would take weeks for every university to agree. If Ucea engaged seriously, there could be a national agreement in days.

A student in his final year at University College London spoke at a student union meeting recently about abandoning his plan to go into academe. Though he loved his subject, the reports he had heard from lecturers about an overstretched and demoralised profession had put him off.

I am a final-year student. My graduation could be delayed if the action drags on. Yes, it would be a major hindrance. But it would not destroy my entire career. And if the lecturers' action gives us a higher education system that our best graduates will want to work in, then a delayed graduation is a risk that some of us are ready to take.

Chaminda Jayanetti is a final-year MA journalism student at Goldsmiths, University of London and news editor of London Student .

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