Today UCU, Unison, and Unite union members are going out on strike across universities. I am joining them. Why, since my own salary and that of all permanent, full-time academic staff is excellent? Is this a case of whingey lecturers greedily looking for even more money? Well, obviously, no. I’m striking for something else. Though striking against a 13% real-terms pay cut is a vital support for other public-sector workers who are engaged in the same struggle.
I’m striking against the iniquity of a university system in which ideologically complaisant vice chancellors and their circles of higher-management stooges, collectively dedicated to transforming the public good of education into a source of private profit, see their salaries rise spectacularly (the average for VCs now around a quarter of a million a year) while administrators, librarians, IT service staff, and all the hundreds of support staff who make university campuses such pleasant and well-functioning places, see their pay stuck below a living wage. And while junior academics, fresh from the PhD at the end of their increasingly expensive student careers, are on exploitative contracts, often zero-hours, sometimes altogether unpaid, having to piece together teaching jobs in two, three, or four universities in far-flung corners of the country, living and working on trains, and perhaps earning no more than £5,000–6,000 in a year for their efforts. The casualization of the academic workforce has reached such a terrible state that the average academic salary is now around the same as or below the theoretical ‘minimum’ academic salary – the figure that is considered the lowest possible offering for new, full-time lecturers. And as students pay more and more for their degrees, universities disburse less and less of it to the teachers and support staff who make it such a wonderful and life-changing place to be.
The university system is in real danger of collapse, and it is the fault not only of governments, who since the 1970s have consistently pressed for the transfer of as many public things as they can into private hands, but also of the senior management of universities. Today’s strike is part of a bigger struggle. Few students really appreciate this danger, and even fewer people in the country at large.
For more background on some of the issues, written in lucid, cool, and richly enjoyable prose, read Stefan Collini’s latest piece (one of a long series, all worth reading) in the latest London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n20/stefan-collini/sold-out.