Pay is the front line in a fight over the future

The UCU’s action is about fairness, equality and defending public higher education, say Tom Hickey and John Holmwood

February 6, 2014

Source: Paul Bateman

We are at a pivotal moment for higher education, facing a political and moral challenge that concerns us all.

The campaign for fair pay, which has seen a series of two-hour strikes in recent weeks, has been met with a clear drive by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association to intimidate staff into submission.

Its aim, as always, is to marginalise trade union influence.

But to understand what is happening fully, we must look at the context for this battle: the fundamental changes to the funding of higher education, which in the past four years have in effect removed universities from the public sector.

Most recently, the decision by the chancellor, George Osborne, to remove the cap on student numbers, and the abolition of the cap on tuition fees that many believe is coming, constitute the culmination of the policy to impose the market as the central regulator of higher education provision in this country.

They also firmly reinforce the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold – a commodity that is rationed by price, the value of which is measured by such things as the “graduate premium” (the extra income graduates are promised in return for their “investment” in their own “human capital”).

But this commercialisation of process is merely paving the way, both materially and ideologically, for the privatisation of our universities and colleges.

The government’s long-term goal is clear: to split our sector into two. One branch would be formed of “elite” institutions catering for an international clientele (as well as some home students, primarily from advantaged backgrounds) willing to pay tuition fees of up to £30,000 a year; the other would be a residual sector offering the local UK population cut-price degrees, and its staff would be on worse terms and conditions – terms set by local bargaining arrangements.

For institutions that prove not to be commercially viable in this confected market, there is the prospect of transfer to the for‑profit sector as they are bought by private providers, a process facilitated by a change in their charters and an alteration to their legal status and accountability.

These developments are not mutually independent.

If cutting staff costs by lowering pension liabilities was one condition for enhancing the market viability of universities (an objective now largely achieved without significant resistance), a defeat for the collective resistance of the trade unions is of equal importance to those whose goal is to split the sector.

That is the context that underpins the determination of Ucea and its affiliated universities to use the threat of “partial performance” against staff taking part in industrial action to deter unions from employing effective tactics, and thus to deflate any hope of collective resistance to the wider agenda. The docking of a full day’s pay for two-hour strikes makes this strategy clear.

When we talk about the current pay campaign, then, it is vital that we keep this wider context in mind.

Of course the campaign is about fair pay, and about mobilising the combined strength of higher education staff to support those at the bottom of the grade structure.

But it is also about fighting a battle that can be won, thereby giving us all the confidence to commit to a wider struggle to preserve higher education as an experience open to all who can benefit from it, irrespective of their wealth or background.

That is the reality. It is also the hope of most members of the University and College Union that in fighting over salaries and conditions, the union will also come to be seen as the champion of public universities, and thus of equality.

The pay campaign is not, therefore, just about “fairness” in remuneration, or about opposition to the dramatic inequalities within institutions. It is not just about revulsion at the salaries enjoyed by the chief executives of universities (and the 5 per cent average increases on those salaries last year).

It is also about equality in a much wider sense. It is about having the confidence, the determination and the organisation to fight for the kind of education that we want for future generations. That is what is at stake in this campaign.

The chief executives of our universities know this. Do we? And are we prepared to do what is necessary to win?

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Last time I checked my watch the 1970s were over.
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