Why I'll be striking...

March 3, 2006

A good work-life balance for staff used to compensate for low pay but not any more - it's time to close the wage gap

Next week, barring head-spinning turnarounds, I will be going on strike over pay. I have been in the profession for less than two years and it is disappointing but, sadly, not surprising.

Only the truly ignorant would go into lecturing for the money. Like most of my colleagues, I am here because of enthusiasm and love for my subject. Nevertheless, it took me eight years of training to become sufficiently qualified and, while I worked in bars to make ends meet, my peers in other professions were being funded through professional exams by their employers.

At the end of my twenties, I'm on the wrong side of a salary gap, an earnings gap and a pension gap. There is no other profession where the training-to-pay ratio is so unfavourable, and it will be almost untenable for those who follow us into academe already labouring under debts from tuition fees. Colleagues with families joke about their terror that lecturing may be genetic.

The strike, though, is about more than money. In a long-gone era, lecturers' low pay was compensated for by freedom in how one used one's time. Now, an increasingly managerial culture means we can no longer look at schoolteachers' higher salaries as the flipside to our better work-life balance.

The profession also suffers an uncertain public image, which the Government does nothing to alleviate. Ministers find in their brief a list of cliches to spout about higher education, be they complaints against ornamental historians or incessant carping about skills and the market. If only they would remember that universities are not selling shoes. After all, a purely market-led university would simply sell degrees.

Ministers and the media overlook much of what is unique about lecturing. It requires rare commitment, it is a difficult career to get into, and it is intellectually and physically tough work, particularly for those many part-time or temporary staff who work long hours with no administrative support and little job security.

Universities are receiving a huge injection of cash, which can only be welcomed, including additional income from tuition fees, which cannot. This money has to be spent where it is needed most - on student welfare and quality research and teaching. But to do this means dedicating significant sums to address the yawning pay abyss and improving the conditions of the many staff living on the tightrope of temporary contracts. That's why I'll be striking.

The author teaches modern languages at a London university.

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