Response letter: ‘Why lecturers need to strike’

Here is the link to the response letter I posted in favour of the UCU strikes yesterday, over at Shade and published below in full.


The criticisms of the UCU strikes over pay cuts to university staff seem to be engaging in ‘concern trolling’ ( the meaning of which in this case is offering advice on how unions could improve their protests by ‘not striking’). Lecturers are told that withdrawing their labour is the most ineffective thing they could do to make their case. When not on strike, their labour is not seen as important enough to keep up with inflation, but if they do strike, the power of their labour is seen as such by management that withdrawing it for a working day causes irreparable damage to students. The stake of students in this letter was also set up as completely oppositional to those of their lecturers.

The criticism that “lecturers – if they so decide- are choosing to make this loss. The students are not” assumes that management are primarily motivated by reasonable argument and debate, rather than short-term financial interests. At no point have lecturers chosen to make a 13% loss in terms of pay; withdrawing labour is not decided flippantly. Mass privatisation of the higher education system affects the living standards of academics and creates two classes of workers. One is secure, tenured, having time to teach and keep up with research, and the other is ‘zero-hours’, assistant, or temporary. An increasingly ‘pink-collar’ workforce still sees a large gender pay gap (up to 13% at SOAS). These assistant professors are paid less, have less academic freedom, less face-time, and are generally less respected, and also increasingly provide university labour. While SOAS does not award ‘zero-hour’ contracts as such, they have avoided paying many PhD assistants for their teaching work while the latter struggle to keep up with their own research and relevant scholarship. The effect of making these staff less secure is that students become less secure: when PhD students face the burden of most of the actual teaching and their students are unsure if these PhD students will be there from one term to the next, students’ academic opportunities are less secure. Students pay the same amount for classes taught by assistant or temporary staff, or by PhD students; these teaching staff should not be paid less either.

Striking to protest a 13% cut in income is not about “sticking it to the man” as claimed. The issues raised are serious, such as insecure zero-hour contracts and unequal pay. Yes, students face similar concerns about inflation and cost of living: students are forced into work while at university to keep up with the cost of rent, but these cost of living issues for students and academics result from the same system. Many in the government wanted the reforms set out by the Browne Report that recommended increasing fees further, which would result in a US-style higher education system. But in the US, student debt has now spiralled to over $1 trillion, and while mortgage and student debt may be a sign of the middle-class ‘strive for prosperity’, debt when you are working-class is something to fear, something associated with loan sharks. The interest on student loans means that graduates in low-income jobs will pay back more, as it takes longer to pay off their loan. Those students are being cut adrift from the university system and the rest turned into ‘customers’. “Students and lecturers together make SOAS. It’s a symbiotic relationship; there wouldn’t be one without the other.” Well, quite. They have the same stake in our university, which is worthy of defending twice in four weeks. Mass privatisation tries to separate students from lecturers. But both face the same frustrations of lacking a democratic stake in the system vis-à-vis management.

When it is suggested by the letter in question that there must be other ways, because strike action is not viable as a sustained means of protest, it abstracts the strikes from the mass privatisation of higher education that results in serious cost of living issues for both students and academics. In a broken system, 13% relative pay cuts matter, and lecturers want to protect their relative stake in this system to prevent further disintegration. In the context of recent university occupations and the arrest of Michael Chessum, it is the actions of management remaining ambivalent and cracking down on dissent that makes any negotiations over decreasing living standards more difficult, rather than the actions of the unions. Criticising particular methods of protest (striking) is a misnomer, since striking is not done for fun. It’s not about ‘viability’, but rather arises when the existing situation is intolerable. Lecturers are trying to protect SOAS from being gutted by management and privatisation. Secure, well-paying academic jobs don’t become good jobs by accident; academia doesn’t have to be well-paying, as seen by the treatment of PhD assistants. The less well-paid the profession is, the less respect such work will have, particularly such a ‘pink collar’ workforce. Workers must be on the offense if they are to get any say in the managing of their workplace.

Just as dangerous as setting students and lecturers in opposition to each other is seeing research and investment as in opposition to paying staff. For every £1 invested in universities, up to £2.60 in economic activity is generated, so in order to create an effective academic system, lecturers need to be paid well. “The future of SOAS” is not being prioritised if qualified PhD assistants find tenured job tracks elsewhere – many, in fact, who have left would say that job and financial security is necessary for academic and research freedom. “The future of SOAS” involves actually paying these PhD students and lecturers. Quite simply, if you want quality teaching, you pay your academics! There is a danger in portraying academic jobs as ‘unskilled’, rather than requiring income security. The necessary money for research and investment is tied to the respect academia has; if academic jobs are taken less seriously, so is any investment in universities. The consequences of mass privatisation and cuts to academic staff are not more money for research and investment, but massive expansion in administrative and managerial costs, while creating a class of low-paid academic staff. The bureaucracy that clogs up SOAS is not some cute affectation acquired by accident, but a consequence of higher education privatisation. It’s a system in which bankers are more trusted on SOAS’ board of governors than academic staff or students.

Continued mobilisation and action has lots of potential power. In Chile, the student movement has shifted the political centre and presidential frontrunner Michelle Bachelet is offering a plan to make higher education completely publicly financed. Closer to home and on campus, the ’3 Cosas’ campaign is achieving substantial results in gaining rights for outsourced cleaners (and in the long run may save money in-house). Management will not concede on pay levels based on argument alone; they were not particularly in favour of the first strike either. But it appears to be the only thing that can pressure management. Students should, of course, have a stake in decision-making at SOAS, but our interests are far more similar to our lecturers than to those of the management.


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