Today’s Strike Is Only the First Step, Says University Professor

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The following is a submission by Professor David Owen, Head of the Politics and International Relations Division at the university. It is intended to reflect solely his own views and is in no way meant to represent staff at the University of Southampton as a whole.

“UCU, UNISON and Unite trade unions announced today that their members working in higher education will walk out on Thursday 31 October in an increasingly bitter row over pay. Staff have been offered a pay rise of just 1% this year, which means they have suffered a pay cut of 13% in real terms since October 2008. Will Hutton this weekend highlighted that as one the most sustained cut in wages since the Second World War.”

This is the bare bones, although it is an issue essential to many staff across the University sector, particularly the 11,641 university employees who earn less than the living wage (and that doesn’t include those who’ve been outsourced) as well as part-time staff, staff on fixed term contracts and junior lecturers. But much more than declining pay is involved in this dispute, and the dispute itself will not be limited to the strike as this is to be followed by a process of working to contract. For academic staff this means limiting their work to 48 hours a week – something rarely achieved by most of us. The dispute takes place against the backdrop of an accelerating marketization of higher education and an increasingly centralized management structure in most UK universities – both supporting the spread of values and practices that are more akin to private corporations (in the contemporary sense) than autonomous scholarly bodies. There is much talk among the senior management of universities about how to get staff to buy into a sense of community but, ironically, there seems little recognition that a sense of belonging to a community is just what is incompatible with the corporate managerial ethos that has been taking over universities. The sense of university staff that they are exposed to ill-thought out arbitrary dictats from senior management and then simply expected to make things work is increasingly a sector-wide experience.

No one sensible doubts that the senior management of UK universities are also struggling with the implications of the brave new world of marketized higher education, but the danger is that if they continue to mimic the corporate sector and its divisive pay differentials, then before long only the faint ghostly impressions of community will remain.

What is to be done? The sector, led by the VCs, need to be much more publically vocal in defense of their staff and to draw attention to the pathologies of current policies. Senior management could stop the practice of out-sourcing jobs and reasonably adopt a policy of assigning pay increases in inverse proportion to current pay. (If there is a limited pot of funds available for increased staff costs, then assign it such that the least well paid benefit most.) This is to say that they – and we – could to re-engage with a rather older notion of the corporation – the university as a civic community.

Post-script

As Lorna Finlayson has noted today: “In an effort to play down the significance of the strike, and the anger of staff and students, a spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association predicted that today’s action will have ‘a low level impact’. This is perfectly true. Relative to the damage that the current policies are wreaking on higher education, any inconvenience caused to students by today’s strike will be insignificant.  Students seem to be quite aware of this. Student unions across the country have passed motions supporting the strike action, and as I write, news is coming in that students at Sussex, Sheffield and SOAS have begun occupations in solidarity with staff. How much ‘impact’ this action will have is up to all of us. Its success depends not only on the willingness of staff to turn up at the picket lines, and of students to join them, but also on the recognition that a single day’s strike action, however successful, is only the first step.”

 

What do you think of the argument Professor Owen has made? If you would like to contribute a submission, please contact us at editor@soton.ac.uk.

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