Personal costs of a very public dispute

June 2, 2006

The pay action has seen mounting tensions between academics, managers and students, which will have a lasting impact on academe. Chloe Stothart reports.

It is easy to see the pay dispute merely in political terms as a trial of strength between university employers and the academic unions on the eve of their historic merger. But the dispute also has significant human cost, one that could have a lasting effect on relations between academics, managers, students and parents.

All parties will come away from the dispute subtly changed. Academics have tested their industrial muscle and inflicted real damage on universities, while many vice-chancellors have found their voice as hard-nosed chief executive officers with businesses to run. Students and parents have discovered that as fee-paying clients they can resort to the law should they feel their consumer rights have been infringed.

For many of those affected, the dispute has accelerated and crystallised relationships already subject to change as higher education becomes more businesslike in the run-up to top-up fees.

Some suggest the dispute is a result of the shift to the bottom-line economics of top-up fees and cut-throat competition for students. As such, it may be the first major manifestation of systemic change in higher education, in which many of the old bonds between those working and studying in the sector are broken and remade.

Whatever history's verdict, the dispute of 2006 has left its mark.


'I'm on both sides of the argument'

Bill Ashraf is a senior lecturer in microbiology at Bradford University who is also studying for an MBA at the institution.

"I see both sides of the story - as a lecturer and as an MBA student. I am torn, as I am taking industrial action, but the action taken by my colleagues could prevent me graduating this year.

"Students have asked me about my position and I have been giving them both sides of the story.

"My concerns arose mainly around being a lecturer, but now I am much more sympathetic to the student point of view.

"Not surprisingly, MBA students are very consumer-focused - they are paying for a premium product and want a premium service. Because they are part time and have nearly finished their studies, I think they are perhaps less aware of the hubbub than full-time students, but if they do not graduate in July there will be problems.

"They often use the MBA as a passport to other jobs. I don't think many employers would say you can't move on without the certificate, but it could create apprehension.

"I am concerned about the effect the dispute is having on students in the sense that there is enough pressure on them with exams and making ends meet. They do not need this extra burden. But if we had been more robust in the past perhaps students would not have had top-up fees and higher fees imposed on them.

"Even if the dispute were called off tomorrow, I think it will take a long time for industrial relations to settle down. Colleagues not taking industrial action may feel aggrieved about taking on extra work. How that will affect working relationships I am not sure.

"My dad was a miner, so I can understand the effect strikes can have on communities and on working relationships."


'Accusations of bullying tactics are annoying'

Kel Fidler, the vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, is a former member of the Association of University Teachers and was one of the first university heads to dock 100 per cent of pay for action short of a strike.

He said: "Although I am now a vice-chancellor, I have been an academic for most of my career, so I know academics are underpaid and I have sympathy with them.

"What I found surprising was how aggressive the AUT and Natfhe were from the outset. I was surprised that the action was designed to harm students - and that has really annoyed me.

"It particularly annoys me when I am accused of intimidation and bullying tactics by withholding 100 per cent of pay. We decided to go for 100 per cent because we couldn't decide how to do anything else.

"Partial performance is meaningless. Outside academia anyone who said 'I will do some of my job and not the rest' would be dismissed.

"I think many of us in higher education have become more aware of the business aspect. Students today do not see university as a privilege so much as a commodity they buy. They are far more aware of the investment they are making in their education.

"And although it is true that we are getting more money in through fees, it is equally true that this will be used to develop the business in terms of investing in staff, students and things such as buildings and facilities.

"It is a cut-throat business, and if I do not go for a particular selling angle, someone else will. But a lot of my colleagues do not seem to understand that. They seem to think that universities can pay for pay rises by some kind of magic.

"I think the dispute has crystallised many of these issues, but I think things will be healed."


'The threat to dock pay has changed my mind'

Dov Stekel, a lecturer in bioinformatics at Birmingham University, is being docked 10 per cent of his pay after joining the assessment boycott.

"I was docked more than £500 from my April pay - backdated to March 13 - which I regard as disproportionate. I am a probationary lecturer, so my assessment duties are fairly light. This was a lot of money for not marking, at most, about 20 pieces of work. I was docked 10 per cent of more than a month and a half's salary.

"Financially, it is not very pleasant. I have money set aside and it has not, at this stage, had any kind of impact, but if the dispute continues for a significant period then I will not be taking a summer holiday. But I do not have a family and I imagine that with a family I would be in a different position.

"I wanted to take a moderate stance, but the hard line taken by the university has hardened my position.

"I voted against the strike because I am horrified by student fees and I think we should continue to fight against them. I thought striking sent a mixed message that we are opposed to fees but want our slice of the pie.

"But I decided to take part in the strike once I got the letter from the registrar that made threats about docking pay and death-in-service benefits while you are on strike.

"What was absent was any statement that they valued staff and wanted them to be rewarded fairly.

"One second-year course I run will be affected. I was going to set the assessments but not mark them on the grounds that the action would not be irreversible.

"But once my pay was docked, I changed my attitude. I cancelled assessments and explained to my students why I had done that. The students I have spoken to have been extremely supportive. Those I spoke to are all first and second-years. I do not really teach third-years that much, and their position might be different.

"Managers have taken a hard line and the unions' position has also been harder than in the past. I think this is symptomatic of a more market-driven approach in higher education.

"I worked in the private sector and I think senior managers want to make higher education a bit more like the private sector. They have shown their true faces in this dispute.

"But, to my mind, one positive outcome of the dispute will be that managers have realised that they cannot push us around because lots of people will then join the union and we will bung up the system.

"I seriously hope that industrial relations in higher education do not become more conflictory in the coming years. We have to resist that. What we need is a debate about the role of the market in universities."


'I will ask for the fees back for the whole year'

Donna Cullen, a final-year student on a BSc psychology course at Plymouth University, took part in Students Against Lecturers' Strike Action (Salsa) last week.

She said: "I have a conditional offer for a masters and if I don't get my classification by July I will lose my place.

"I do not pay my fees, but I am in contact with a solicitor to see what my rights are in relation to things such as how much debt I have got into.

"We have had no work back since January. We've had 14 credits out of 120 back, so I don't know how well I am doing. It's affected psychology really badly and, I think, four other courses.

"I am trying to get a solicitor down here to tell people their rights because I assume some kind of learning agreement has been breached.

"Lecturers aren't saying what is going on. I had one reply saying that we wouldn't get coursework back, and that was a fortnight ago. A lot of students do not know anything about it because lecturers aren't telling them anything."

Robyn Cottell, another final-year student on Plymouth's BSc psychology course who, like Ms Cullen, took part in the student action, said: "I complained about six weeks ago, and our complaints have been passed from pillar to post.

"I am going for selection for the Royal Air Force in June, and I will have to contact them to explain the situation.

"They could ask me what I am likely to get, but I would have no idea as I have had only 14 credits back out of 120.

"That's the problem that anyone going for graduate jobs will have. Our dissertations are sitting in the office not being marked and it is really not good for morale. We have not had any exams cancelled. That is the one thing that I am quite thankful for."

Paul Cottell, Robyn's father, said: "I am going to ask the university exactly what the tuition fees are paying for.

"There must be a way of repaying them if the lecturers are not doing their jobs. I know they are not as high as in the US but it is still £1,100 a year.

"Since the start of the year, Robyn has been on reduced lessons and nothing has been marked.

"One problem with talking to the university is that there is little access to anyone who can make a decision.

"There's a financial loss to me, while Robyn, from a career point of view, could graduate with no degree after three years of work. She is applying to join the Air Force and this could lower her chances of entry.

"I will ask for the fees back for the whole year, but if she graduates without a degree my question to them is: will they give them a degree at some point or have we paid three years of tuition fees for nothing?

"If she comes out without a qualification, I will be looking into taking legal action because it shows a lack of care for the students. They often send out marking to senior students to do, and that is appalling, because it is not what we are paying for.

"I think universities are stuck in the 1950s when it was a kind of grown-up boarding school where people could send their kids and they got looked after for three years and grew up a bit. Life has moved on and people demand value for money."

Lee Matravers is in the final year of a BSc psychology and criminal justice studies degree at Plymouth and also took part in the Salsa action.

He said: "I am going on to do a postgraduate certificate in education at Kingston University next year and I need to know what I will get, as the university will want to know.

"I wrote to the vice-chancellor, then it went to the complaints department and then to the dean of students for the faculty.

"I think a lot of people will consider legal action, especially those paying tuition fees.

"There are international students who have visas that will run out soon, so if they cannot take their exams now they will not be able to graduate.

"A lot of universities have said that they will bring in special procedures. I am deferring my PGCE for a year, but if I have to apply again then it will be a big pain."

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