The following is a piece by a teaching assistant at the university, explaining their reasoning behind supporting the staff strike this Thursday. Their views are their own, and are not intended to represent those of the staff body at the University of Southampton.
Many of you will have heard that staff are striking this Thursday. Though I will be one of them, I won’t be doing it with any great enthusiasm. Striking will cost me money. It will put one of my seminar groups – who matter a lot to me – at a disadvantage. And it will probably have little effect on those who run the Universities – who seem to do so with little regard for staff or students at the best of times.
Why am I doing it then? That short answer is that something has to give. Lecturers and academic staff have seen their pay fall in real terms for the last 5 years. This can’t go on forever. And the situation is often worse still for administrative and support staff – for those who still have their jobs at least – and worse still for the cleaners, caterers and security staff who keep the campus running from morning to night 6 days a week. University pay has become totally distorted, with Vice-Chancellors, including our own Don Nutbeam typically earning around £300,000 pa, whilst thousands of staff are paid below the living wage and on zero hours contracts.
Students may well find it hard to sympathise with striking staff, and this is very much understandable. After all, it is students who will lose out on the day of the strike – and in any future action that takes place. And it’s typically assumed that lecturers have it pretty good in terms of pay and conditions. In some sense this is true. Academic life can be wonderful, and doing research is a privilege that none of us should take for granted. But the days of the ivory tower have been gone for some time. Even senior staff are lucky to find a few hours a day to do their own research – facing more administration, targets and funding pressure than ever before. Teaching assistants, like me, typically work on zero hours contracts – accepting work when we can get it – and typically earning much less than half of the hourly wage of lecturers. Many of us have families, and most of us don’t even come close to supporting them with what we earn from teaching.
Will the strike fix all this? Of course not. But its about the only option we have. And as of now, higher education is heading nowhere good. Aside from pay – students should also be concerned about rumours that Universities want to raise fees further, and the Government’s plans to sell their student debt to private firms who can raise the repayment rates in the future. The Government and University management are currently using one of the worlds best University systems as a guinea pig in a radical market-driven experiment. This prospect should fill no-one with a sense of confidence.
So to students who miss seminars, lectures and tutorials on Thursday – by all means get angry. Hell knows you’re paying enough for them. But when you get angry, remember that staff are angry too. If you want to know why your education is being harmed – and be in no doubt that it is – you need to look past us, and up to University management, and even to Parliament. There is not one staff member on campus who would rather be striking than teaching. But doing nothing just isn’t an option.
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