Spineless except over salaries

April 7, 2006

If academics were ready to stand up and be counted over all major university issues, Susan Bassnett might be willing to back their boycott.

Strike action seems to be polarising the academic community. Over the past few weeks, I have heard two diametrically opposite views expressed by people I regarded as moderate to the point of being almost opinionless. One ranted about how unfair the strike was to students, and how absurd the demands of the Association of University Teachers were; the other went out and joined the picket line.

I see the situation from vastly different perspectives. As a senior manager, I know only too well how underfunded universities are and how absurd it is to imagine that the advent of increased student fees will solve any financial problems, let alone result in large pay rises. As a parent, I do not like the fact that my daughter may suffer because of this action. She worries that with no marks coming back to her, she will not know how she is progressing or how she can try to improve.

At Warwick University, we have had to talk about contingencies in case students arrive at their graduation ceremony without knowing their degree results, which could damage their career prospects. But as an academic, I recognise how much university life has changed in the past few years and how deeply dissatisfied many colleagues are with their working conditions, feeling continually under pressure to deliver more and more. The growth of quality control offices means that academics feel increasingly disempowered; I am told that in some universities you cannot put forward a new teaching proposal without it being vetted by half a dozen quality administrators, which makes a mockery of academic expertise.

But despite having a lot of sympathy for the strikers and sharing some of their disgruntlement, I do not think this strike is wise. It has minimal support across the sector (less than 8 per cent voted in favour). Moreover, academic salaries are set to rise with the new framework agreement. True, some people complain that those salaries compare unfavourably with other professions, but how many others enjoy the flexibility that academics take for granted?

I also do not believe that the relative decline of academic pay and the deteriorating working conditions some people complain about are entirely the fault of an administrative culture. We academics must share part of the blame for often being spineless and not standing up to be counted when successive governments have rubbished higher education. We are partly responsible for the declining standards that so many of us lament and have allowed a culture driven by bureaucracy to take hold. Few people will feel much sympathy for us, particularly if this year's student finalists cannot graduate on time.

Our problem is that we tend not to put our heads above the parapet except where our salaries are concerned, and there are far bigger issues facing universities than pay. Let us see more concerted action to protest against the closure of departments, the demise of whole subjects nationally, the rise of plagiarism, the overcrowded seminars, the ceaseless flow of jargon-ridden communiques from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the lack of consultation, the end of free education, the serious underfunding and the low quality of ministers in charge of universities.

If all these concerns got as much attention as pay rises, I might even be able to come out in support of the strike.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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