Why should we become our lecturers' hostages?

April 21, 2006

Fourth-year student Laura Swinton is aghast at the AUT and Natfhe's unfair, disrespectful and callous exam boycott

In the stand-off between the lecturers' unions and university managers, neither side wants to be the first to crack. Those who will suffer most in this dispute over pay are the students. We are being used as cannon fodder.

It is disappointing that the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe have resorted to the sort of crude, vindictive methods that belong to another age. Their diabolical marking boycott puts students' futures at stake.

One might wonder why unions supposedly comprising the best academic minds in the country can't come up with something, well, a bit cleverer. At a time when they are demanding increased pay, lecturers should prove their academic worth. Devising effective measures that don't screw up students' prospects might be a good place to start.

Union leaders seem to be suffering from delusions. They are convinced that students support the marking boycott. Perhaps they imagine that the students they are holding hostage will develop Stockholm syndrome and will ultimately come to sympathise with their captors. Well, we're not there yet.

While I agree with the demands for better pay and I support academics'

right to strike, I am deeply concerned about the damage that the ominously vague "industrial action short of a strike" could cause. I do understand the need for a robust university system with well-paid, motivated staff, but it is presumptuous and unfair to expect this year's finalists to sacrifice their past hard work and future prospects for the cause.

Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to believe that the unions pushing the boycott really care about the welfare of students. The increased stress and worry being heaped on finalists at a time that is already pretty stressful and worrying is unfair and betrays a profound disrespect.

Students are not simply consumers of education: we are human beings who invest years of effort in our degrees. The marking boycott mocks every minor triumph that has kept us sane throughout university - every unreasonable deadline met, every caffeine-fuelled all-nighter survived, every exam conquered. I feel disheartened that after a four-year slog through one of the most challenging degrees going, lecturers'

representatives view me as dispensable.

I may seem biased, portraying the unions as the bad guys and neglecting other guilty parties. Of course, the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association is equally responsible for the whole sordid affair. Employers'

aims, however, are quite different; with the hefty 25 per cent pay rise the vice-chancellors have supposedly awarded themselves, they are already enjoying the benefits of a hefty pay hike.

Although they may be even guiltier of manipulating students and using us as pawns, the betrayal by senior managers and vice-chancellors does not cut as deeply as that by the academics.

Following the closure of my department, any naive notion that the higher echelons of the university give a crap about students and academe has long since evaporated. I did expect something more from teachers, though. The AUT and Natfhe bemoan employers taking advantage of lecturers' goodwill. It is hypocritical, therefore, that the unions seek to exploit students' goodwill in a similar fashion.

At this point I should probably emphasise that I genuinely like lecturers, especially when they are not holding students to ransom. Moreover, my criticism is a general one aimed at the actions of the unions and not at any individual lecturer - Jso if you decide that you are going to mark my exams, a first would still do nicely, thanks.

The refusal of Ucea to enter into talks with Natfhe and the AUT is frustrating. However, this does not absolve the unions of responsibility for chaos into which they have thrust the nation's students. The inability, or unwillingness, of the unions to employ less destructive methods of protest is just as responsible for the current heightened state of anxiety among many students as stubbornness on the part of Ucea. If both sides stopped pursuing this elaborate fantasy of power trips and mind games, and engaged with the real world, they would see the destruction, confusion and frustration that they are inflicting on us.

As the exam period looms, students around the country have been left to stew. Our only hope is for both parties to swallow their pride, face up to the damage they have already caused and engage in serious negotiations before they do any more.

Laura Swinton is a fourth-year student studying Chinese with politics at Durham University.


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