We voted for action and results, not surrender

June 16, 2006

Union members' dismay over betrayal by their leaders is turning into resolve to return to battle, says Tom Hickey

Before the latest twist in the university pay dispute, one disillusioned historian told me straight: "After 25 years, I want to resign from the union." Now the University and College Union's transitional executive has defied its own negotiators by not recommending the demoralising pay deal. Suddenly, a "no" vote looks possible. The dispute may yet reach a happier conclusion, and the historian and the many other academics who responded to the June 6 deal with bitterness and incredulity have some hope.

At the moment of its inception, the UCU faced a lengthy dispute - a test of its leadership's nerve and its members' determination. The latter remained steadfast.JThe former was a failure beyond the employers'

wildest hopes. Suspension of action was also a betrayal of the new union's policy. The clear position of the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe was not to ballot on any offer without a substantial "catch-up"

element, some redress for the 35-40 per cent decline in comparative salaries in the past two decades. The rejection of recent offers by both unions had been overwhelmingly endorsed by rank-and-file academics at local-level meetings.

The dispute has ceased to be simply about pay. What began as a campaign for a fair share of the new money has come to be seen as a struggle for the very future of higher education. Having brought the sector to the brink of crisis, the behaviour of the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association suggested that it too had a different concern. At stake was the ongoing project to commodify higher learning and the consequent differentiation of institutions between "prestigious" and "cut price".

So, despite the distress sometimes suffered by students from a delay in graduations (and the associated professional turmoil caused to tutors), staff attitudes had been hardening. Many had been preparing to keep the dispute going through summer and were planning for its likely escalation in the new academic year.

The National Union of Students maintained principled solidarity, judging that the short-term delays suffered by this year's finalists were outweighed by the consequences of further market differentiation in higher education in future - growing inequality between high-quality provision for some and standardised mass training for most.

Ucea was divided. Its pay offers were simultaneously too much and not enough. Part of its constituency wanted a settlement, a compromise the UCU could put to a ballot; another wanted local deals to end national bargaining; a third wanted to resist assessment sanctions to deter their future use and to blunt, if not break, the new union.

In these circumstances, the collapse of the UCU leadership is difficult to understand. The end of national bargaining was improbable, despite the local settlement in Ulster. Maintaining the dispute with salary stoppages would have been challenging, but not impossible. Sanctions could have been applied earlier in the next academic year and supplemented with more frequent and sustained action. Whatever the tactical mistakes already made, there seemed little reason for such weakness of will.

This loss of nerve raises questions about the leadership's capacity and brings to the fore the issue of democracy. Conceding Ucea's demand to suspend action - a clear attempt to affect the ballot result - deeply offended democrats. Now the UCU has an internal battle between Left and Right, cutting across residual tribal loyalties to old organisations and transcending professional divides. For many, initial dismay has been replaced with a resolve to win a "no" vote and plan a more effective campaign from September. Some will debate appropriate structures and policies for the union at the UCU Left conference next Saturday (www.uculeft.org). Hovering in the wings will be the election of the union's first general secretary, as well as who should be held responsible for the debacle.

One does not need to be an apologist for postmodern historiography to see future narratives of this struggle as the retrospective imposition of meaning. As Simon Schama once observed of the French Revolution, historical actors "see their conduct as in part situated between the role models from a historic past and expectations of the judgment of posterity". The lesson is apt, if the comparison preposterous. When the next generation of academics reflects on the condition of their intellectual labours, they will look back on this ballot to understand its provenance.

Tom Hickey is a lecturer in philosophy and critical theory at Brighton University and a former member of Natfhe's national executive committee.

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