Academics on strike

Friday, March 3rd, 2006

As a member of the AUT, I’ll be on strike on Tuesday; and from Tuesday onward there is an assessment boycott. This really has put a spring in the step of my esteemed colleague Prof Trickledare (yep, made-up name): ‘YEA! No more marking! YEA!’ But all that marking will pile up on our desks, waiting for us when the strike action ends. Already students are worrying, asking ‘but who will mark our assignments?’

Yesterday I had to try to explain what a union was to an international student from Kuwait. I note with interest that the NUS (the students’ union) still hasn’t put it’s usual message of support on its own website. With the increase in fees, the increase in overseas students who don’t really ‘get’ the idea of unions, and the lack of support from the NUS; I’m not sure that the students support us on this one (unlike previous years).

I would just like to be paid more. Simple as that. I spent 6 years in education (degree, then PhD) without a salary. Teachers in schools earn more than university lecturers.

(Via University Challenged.)

I’m in several minds over the national strike by lecturers next Tuesday. I’m a member of NATFHE and have supported strikes in the past, though in a symbolic manner – staying at home and marking students’ work, but telling my college I was on strike and taking the pay deduction on the chin. In fact if I remember correctly, that day was a rather sunny one and I ended up bumping in to my students in the local pub and having one of the best seminars I can remember in long time!

Truth is, I can’t afford to strike this time round – my finances are so finely balanced that a day’s salary deduction would cost me dear, with overdraft charges, credit card charges and possibly my rent payment bouncing. How ironic that I can’t afford to strike in support of a pay claim. Says it all!

I happen to think a lot of academics are rather well paid, for what they do. The things I feel are bad are the number of lecturers who are on temporary, fixed-tem contracts or who are only paid hourly – no holiday entitlement, no sick pay, no job security. These need addressing more urgently. If I was on a full-time contract, I’d be okay, and I know the same is true of many colleagues nationally. We don’t do this job for the money, but a little security would go a long way.

I also feel it is the mark of a seriously warped national sense of priority when people researching cures for cancer are treated like that and paid around ¬£16,000 a year if they’re lucky.

I got a bit depressed by the approach the union is taking locally in accusing senior management of bullying tactics, while doing pretty much the same itself (veiled threats about crossing picket lines etc).

While reading the Times Higher Educational Supplement today I saw that the AUT, the other academic union striking, is advising its members not to set or invigilate exams, with obvious consequences for students. A spokesperson said it wouldn’t be long before students felt the impact.

But the problem is not with the students – that’s what gets me.

I think I would have the support of my students in going on strike, but I wouldn’t be doing it to hurt them. A day’s strike wouldn’t even begin to make up the hours I work beyond my contract anyway, so the impact would be minimal.

The other thing that occurred to me today was that it’s odd that our unions aren’t advising lecturers to do things like refuse to submit journal articles, attend conferences, write papers, or similar research-based activities. It’s these things which would really hurt universities while minimising the effects for students.

Why aren’t we refusing to participate in research? Because, of course, that would also affect our careers. It seems we’re prepared to take action that could, potentially, have serious consequences for students – particularly those graduating this year – but none that would affect our own.

Pay in the academic sector is appalling. No other profession requires the majority of its members to fund their own training, live in poverty for six years, be paid less than the average graduate salary for the first five years of their careers and then pay them less than school teachers. It has to change, and it should – the money is there. Employers have to be faced down on this and made to realise and, sadly, it seems strike action is the only way to do it.

But threatening undergraduates is wrong, especially when a research boycott would be far more effective. I think the unions are showing a lack of imagination.

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