The dramatic spike in tuition fees means we are effectively buying the services of the University. It seems odd that we have no interest in how our money is being spent.
As you may or may not be aware, lecturers, tutors and academic staff have been striking on and off over the last two weeks. Industrial action has been taken six times just in this academic year over a pay dispute. The main higher education union, the University and College Union, has joined forces with Unison, Unite and the EIS in order to apply increased pressure but so far their efforts have yet to yield satisfactory results.
In fact so far the only real consequence of the strikes has been to make students opposed to the strikes. Without much knowledge of why our lecturer has chosen to go on strike, we instantly turn the situation around to how it will affect us. In an air of bitter resentment we claim that by missing that one lecture we are bound to fail the module, and probably our whole degree. After all, we pay their salaries. Now industrial action by academic staff is seen as selfish and morally irresponsible, a breach of contract.
However this view is just plain wrong. Firstly, the term hypocrite should be levelled against us; how many lectures and tutorials have we missed because of alcohol-related illness during your degree? In my case it’s too many to count. We defend our own truanting as anarchical laziness, but as soon as the boot is on the other foot we are more than ready to denounce it.
Secondly, with the dramatic spike in tuition fees, we are effectively buying the services of the University. We were more than happy to march against the raise, but now that it has been established it seems extremely odd to me that we have no interest in how our money is being spent. We are the ones paying the wages of University employees. So we should give a damn if those wages are grossly inflated or reduced to a miserly stipend. If, for instance, staff received a pay offer of one per cent it would leave them with a real-term pay cut of 13 per cent since 2009. This is not hypothetical. Whilst ordinary academics have seen their wages steadily decrease with inflation, vice-chancellors enjoyed an average pay rise of 5.1 per cent last year, and an average salary of £235,000. Our own VC received one of the more restrained wage increases, at 1.6 per cent, but her salary is still just over £250,000. At the other end of the scale, the London School of Economics, well known for its honesty and humble egalitarian morality, has increased the salary of its VC from £270,000 in 2011/2012, to a staggering £425,000 in 2012/2013. Just to make it absolutely clear, that’s an increase of 61.1 per cent, whilst lower staff remain on one per cent.
So, where is our solidarity with this movement? I am damn sure that I don’t want my tuition fees going straight into the pockets of University bureaucrats and executives. And yet when the strikes roll around, when the staff wave placards outside Uni Place I’m at home in the warm, thinking about something completely different. Our tendency to turn on our own, coupled with a students’ innate laziness is partly to blame. But a major factor has been the lack of information provided, both by the Union and by our own lecturers and tutors. This is additionally strange when you consider that the protests have not been without controversy. Tristram Hunt, a front bench Labour MP, has been criticised recently for crossing a picket line at Queen Mary University to give a lecture, somewhat ironically, on Marxism. Mind you he supplements his salary with a measly £66,396 he gets as a Member of Parliament.
I was only alerted to the strikes through a terse email from University administration informing me of days that might be disrupted, but without any context as to why these strikes were taking place. I had to do my own research to establish exactly what the mysterious “ongoing dispute” was. When I knew why the action was being taken, it had my full sympathy and support. But I had to find out on my own. Oxford Road is not plastered with posters proclaiming the issues, nor were any of my teachers explaining why they were withholding their labour. If anything it seemed like a dirty secret, something they were embarrassed about when asked.
So far the strikes have not succeeded. According to UCU further industrial action is planned, including the possibility of a marking boycott if negotiations do not advance. This will be just another nail in the coffin of UCU’s relationship with students, at least if they don’t work to get us onside. So this is a message to UCU, from me, a supportive student. We love a good protest, look at Sussex, Birmingham, and the 2010 marches – please extend the invitation and involve us. Support from even a tenth of the student population at Manchester would considerably thicken the ranks of protesters, and numbers are often the key to effectively applying pressure. Two hour strikes (which can also be equated with a lie-in, or an extended lunch hour), are really only hurting us, the learners. If you want to achieve a pay-rise that represents the valuable work you do, you need to work with us, not against us. I’m onside, now it’s time to convince everyone else.