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There are clearly some who still cling to the belief that it should be possible to sit down with the university senior management over a cup of tea and a scone and have a nice reasoned discussion about why they should not make staff redundant, why they should pay an acceptable wage and consider spending money on keeping the quality of education paramount and not on the external look of the campus and the complete wedding of education to enterprise.  Now this might all be very convivial and perhaps might have worked say 50 years ago, though that is questionable, but I remain aghast that there are those naive enough to believe that management will listen to this approach at all now.  Education is no longer managed by a cliquey group of senior professorial men, it is run by a different clique of ex-corporate men and the odd woman of the same ilk who want to bring the efficiency they feel they presided over in the private sector and use it to corporatise the public sector.

I am confident that most people in educational institutions both academic and non-academic staff take the job more seriously than their private sector counterparts and value a position that allows them to work for what they see as the greater good and therefore the students as very much part of that.  When it comes to any thought of industrial action the academics and academic-related union UCU members are extremely reluctant to do anything that might have a denigrating effect on the quality of the education of their students and this is voiced in both public and private time and again.  There is never any action taken where it is the primary intent to use the students as pawns but there is a very pertinent question of what action can be taken to act as leverage over what is becoming an increasingly dogmatic and repressive management in UCEA, the employers mouthpiece, who very often do not represent the views of all the universities they are supposed to but rather than more powerful ones?

Any action the UCU takes is likely to cause some disruption, that is kind of the point of industrial action, but the action itself is merely the means and not the ends, it is ideally a final card to play in negotiating a settlement in a dispute to voice the opinion that there are certain principles one is not prepared to compromise on.  One may also choose to see the long-term goals of staff who do care very much about the university and therefore many generations of students as being perhaps a little more important than the views of one set of students alone.  It is an uncomfortable trade-off but one that has to be made in struggles across the globe and history, the needs of the many do generally by default outweigh the needs of the few.  Let us not forget that a great many of the staff in academic institutions have seen students and senior management come and go for decades and will continue to do so.  Furthermore although one might expect any current crop of students to be opposed to anything that they feel hinders them the UCU dispute in 2006 had the support of the national NUS just as the UCU had strongly supported the NUS in opposing tuition fees.  Locally things are often more barbed, lecturers being subjected to abuse by their students, or being pleaded with to break the strike so as not to impact their studies.  Local NUS president’s have even been known to issue their own personally subjective viewpoints expressing sentiments such as that the action might mean a student misses the one key lecture that results in him getting a 2.2 rather than a 2.1.

Students at the moment seem to have forgotten exactly what it is they come here for.  If it is for a place on a graduate recruitment scheme, ie as the tick box that enables them to get the job they think they want then institutions might just as well pack up and go home and leave it to the fast-track degree specialists and online services which can do this job better.  Universities are about education, they are not about vocational training schemes and if we as a society forget that then we are doing our students a far worse disservice than any strike action for we are setting them up for a wave of mid-life crises the like of which this country has never seen.  No-one is currently talking about withholding student’s education in the UCU action, students and/or their parents have paid for an education and they have received this, what is in question is whether or not they will receive on time the validation that they have understood this education, this very much makes each individual’s reasons for being here quite clear and in the open.  Lectures are often crucial but they are to be given in the context of students who are interested in the subject and reading up on it.  If the reading is done correctly and diligently then frequently the lecture is merely a handy way to see that information analysed and disseminated.

There is, as everyone knows, a turbulent financial climate at the moment however this has led to a large increase in the number of student applicants leading to estimates that nearly 30,000 will be turned down due to there not being enough places available.  It is therefore madness for universities now to be further lessening places by closing departments across the board and it is essential that the employers and the government ensure that this does not happen.

Better pay for university staff across the entire sector will benefit the students in a number of ways:  Fair remuneration for the job maintains morale, one cannot pay the rent and the bills purely on the desire to do a good job within the sector.  It also means that the university can recruit the best people to do the job without the salary being seen as a hindrance to employment.  Conversely the lack of fair salaries will lead to a great many leaving the sector entirely and their expertise and continuity will be lost.  This cannot be good for students or the colleagues left behind who will have to take on a much greater workload.  In an age when other provisions such as pensions that might have been seen as offsetting the salary gap are under threat it becomes all the more important that the package in the here and now is commensurate with the work staff are doing.  It is easier for those on high academic grades to feel that they are already paid a very comfortable wage but one must not forget that a great many colleagues are not as lucky not just the lower-paid UCU members but the large number of members of other unions such as Unison and Unite.  Joining a union is ensuring justice for all not just top-slicing for the few.

Finally there is the issue of loyalty, being a member of a union is not just about what you can get the union to do for you, it is not just an insurance service for when the shit may hit the fan in an individual’s professional circumstances.  Union activity is about collective action and bargaining, knowing that it is not only right but also more efficient for people to ally together to safeguard the jobs and conditions of their comrades.  No-one complains when pay rises are achieved or conditions safeguarded as a result of union action and negotiation, sometimes it is necessary to give something back and give the union the support that gives them a strong position to take to the table.  Not to do so undermines the union not only now but for a long-time in the future, weakness will always be capitalised on because the aftermath of disunity will herald a wave of attempts to erode rights that have been hard-fought by past colleagues.

I have my reservations about a strike, I have grave ones about the management of the media battle based on past experience and I am concerned that there appears to have been no serious thought given as to what the alternative will be in the event of a ‘no’ vote.  Nonetheless I feel that the threat of industrial action to maintain pay, conditions and the jobs of employees now and in the future is worth voting ‘yes’ for and I believe it would be grossly irresponsible to vote any other way.

Song Of The Day ~ Les Gars – Nice Way To See Things

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