Lecturers Aren’t Commodities; The University Is Not a Factory

By Anonymous

Originally published Feb, 2014

As the ongoing pay dispute continues to escalate, now more than ever a student response is needed to insist that University management get around the table with Unions and fix this problem before students suffer. The solution however is not to team up against lecturers — as this only encourages the institutions to hold out longer from entering into talks.

Throughout the dispute staff have been calling on employers to minimise disruption to students and sit down and talk seriously about pay, however managers have continued to refuse to enter into dialogue despite the already disruptive impact of previous actions. Only through a student response will management no longer be able to refuse to accept that students are being affected. If we complain and demand renegotiation we can speed up this dispute and prevent it from having a worse impact on our education. The last marking boycott in 2006 led to chaos with graduations and exams facing postponement. This one doesn’t have to.

As students, this proposition definitely presents itself as a challenge. Indeed, with extortionate student fees we expect our education to meet a certain standard and to help support our development as we begin to face our own economic uncertainty post-graduation. And indeed, I don’t doubt that this uncertainty has been a contributing factor that has turned students into customers — a position of weaknesses that has been commented on recently by our Education Officer, Grace Burton.

But despite these pressures, we need to avoid short term solutions. Calling staff “selfish” or “lazy” as they fight for fair pay, will not make your educational experience any more enriching. What it will do is further isolate staff as they struggle for a fair wage and will allow UK universities to become populated with underpaid lecturers teaching rooms full of students who treat them merely as aural textbooks. And it forgets that lecturers, support staff and students have interests in common. It is only by paying people a fair wage in higher education is the industry going to attract the best to come and teach, and share their experience.

So indeed, despite the short term potential offered in supporting management to place increased pressure on staff, higher education in the UK will continue to suffer, undermining the quality of teaching and services that future generations will experience — in addition to reducing the value of your degree in the global marketplace. Interestingly, a recent survey looking at international pay of university staff shows that UK academics are being paid less than their counterparts in other English-speaking countries. The figures show UK lecturers are paid 45% less than Canadians, 34% less than Americans and 16% less than Australian lecturers.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt has referred to the marking boycott as an ‘ultimate sanction.’ So far complaints over pay have not been taken seriously, with university managers ignoring the requests of staff to enter into a dialogue over pay cuts — staff have faced a real terms pay cut of 15% since 2009, as well as an increase in gendered pay divisions and zero hour contracts. This is not just affecting academic staff, but also the service staff at the university — including those that protect us, help us use the facilities that we rely on, and give us our daily coffee boost.

Any sort of marking boycott will be detrimental for students — but we wish to stress the only productive way forward is through increased pressure on managers to get around the table with Unions and end this dispute. These pay cuts have affected the workers at the university that are on the lowest wages, despite university managers seeing a pay increase of 5% since 2009. Some managers take home salaries of up to £400,000 a year — more than the prime minister. Despite the increase in tuition fees, the £9000 students pay has continued to prop up the salaries of the wealthy — whilst those we see and support us everyday in our studies have continued to suffer.

Our education is in crisis and we need a discussion on how we should proceed. We don’t wish this article to be presented as a definitive answer, but rather the beginning of a discussion, a discussion that needs to be had on how students should engage with the politics of the university and education. At the current time any sort of apathy will be detrimental not just on the current and future cohorts of students, but on the staff we rely on and the education sector as a whole.