Rest easy, most students are right behind boycott

April 7, 2006

While he regrets targeting assessment in the pay dispute, Simon Ungar believes astute undergraduates support the action

It's not the letters from our vice-chancellors reminding us that students are our "customers" and warning us against damaging the core business of our institutions. It's not the prospect of losing a slice of my salary. And it's certainly not the criticism from some of our non-union colleagues, who will nevertheless benefit from any salary increase that we win. No, for me the most difficult thing about taking part in the assessment boycott is the struggle to reconcile my commitment to the Association of University Teachers-Natfhe pay campaign with my concerns over the damage it may do to the students I teach, supervise and advise.

I understand why it is inevitable that students will be affected by our protest. To be effective, industrial action must have an immediate impact on our employers. A boycott of research, for example, would simply not have that immediacy and most of the consequences would fall on individual lecturers rather than on institutions. An assessment boycott hits the students and hence the university. But despite my conviction that this must be our main lever in the dispute, I still find it hard to carry it out.

This is because, like most lecturers, I see students as more than just "customers". Sure, they contribute to their tuition and therefore have a financial "stake" in universities that their predecessors did not have. But students still do not feel like customers to us. Even with the relatively large year groups that I encounter in my department, I get to know many of them quite well. I get pretty close to my personal tutees and my dissertation students as well as those I see as undergraduate course director. When they arrive at university, many are leaving home for the first time, and lecturers inevitably experience parental feelings towards those for whom we are responsible. Now we are forcing ourselves to withhold the assessments and marks on which those young people's degrees depend.

Would I do the same to my own children?

Despite my misgivings, I am sticking with my fellow union members to carry out the boycott. I am convinced that not only are we right to ask for pay rises at this particular time, but that this is necessary to safeguard the future of the higher education system and of the students who will one day study within it. We know that poor pay is linked to poor motivation and poor performance in the workplace. The sense of enjoyment and achievement that we get from our teaching and research can mitigate the effects of insufficient pay up to a point, but that point has long since been passed in our universities.

Many students recognise this fact and want to see the situation remedied.

In contrast to seeing themselves as customers, as our vice-chancellors would have us believe, our students often have the political sophistication to transcend this limited perspective. They recognise the importance of a decent higher education system beyond the immediate concerns of their courses of study. They recognise that they may return to university in future as postgraduates. They recognise that their younger siblings or their own children may study at university. They recognise that they may go on to work in higher education. They recognise the importance to society of a properly resourced university system.

This is not just wishful thinking that lets me sleep at night. When students engage with the issues that underpin our action, they begin to see this bigger picture. They want the dispute to be over, their coursework marked, their exams staged and their degrees awarded. But they also want to support us.

A referendum on our action was held by the student union at my own university a fortnight ago. The campaign to support the AUT was run mostly by students and there was little need for my direct involvement. But I have talked to individuals throughout the dispute. They are worried about graduation but accept our argument that this is the only option we have to make our point and they are now taking up their issues with the university management. They voted in the referendum to support us.

I cannot accept the popular view of students as politically naive consumers of higher education who are concerned only with their individual rights as customers. I believe that many appreciate the broader importance of decent pay for university staff, and they want to see us achieve this.

Simon Ungar is a psychology lecturer and secretary of Surrey University AUT local association.

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