Today, the University and College union UCU are holding a strike relating to pensions and pay. If you want to read a good exposition of why lecturers and support staff have voted for this, Phil Wadler has written an excellent piece and UCU have an official announcement [PDF warning]. As always, there’s an active Twitter stream on the action. Of course, any academic should tell you that it’s a good idea to read both sides of any story, so do go and look.
Our own chapter of the student union have an announcement on why they will not be supporting striking lecturers today and, with great reluctance, I will be in agreement with the SU and crossing the picket line, although for rather different reasons than the SU have cited.
This is a tumultuous time for Higher Education in the UK and we have been recently hit with several, potentially very detrimental, policies from government. These include:
- increasing the level of fees and creating a fees economy at a time when many young people could not hope to gain a job after secondary school because of the global financial recession, leaving many young people with very few life options after their compulsory education has ended;
- maintaining the tight quotas and financial penalties for breaching quotas on “home” (UK/EU) students whilst making it more difficult for (uncapped) overseas students to get visas (and so maintaining the odd situation that a University is fined by the government for being popular with students). This is a major problem as most universities already have to spend more to teach students than they get from HEFCE. At the very least, most academics work between sixty and eighty hours a week, so the wages bill for academics is really close to twice the figure on the balance sheets. Most lecturers would rather be offering students more and better tuition when they start to pay full fees, rather than being squeezed by finances into providing less;
- deregulating the tight restraints on which institutions may award degrees and opening the way for non-research based organisations such as publishing houses to grants degree titles, and
- limiting teaching and research funding, especially for the arts and humanities.
With such huge threats to the excellent reputation that UK higher education has around the world, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is plenty for UCU to strike over. I would certainly agree, but in a time when we are expecting students to contribute ever more to their own education, to strike over our own pensions and pay seems petty, puerile and selfish and I cannot bring myself to support it.
At this time we in academic and UCU in particular desperately need to effectively communicate the value — both the economic value and the social capital — that Universities contribute to national life. We need to argue that the idea of a university still means something. That students deserve to be taught by true experts in their fields. That the idea of the University to train the next generation of factory workers is not acceptable and University should offer more to students than a chance at a job interview, but be an education for life. To my mind, by taking this very limited, selfish strike action at such a crucial time we have lost any moral high-ground with the government and any real opportunity to communicate our message effectively to the public. In years to come, we will look back at this day and say this was the beginning of the end. What a shame.