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  • Published in Analysis

UCU picket line at the University of East Anglia on 1st November.

Lecturers threatening to boycott marking students' final-year exams have postponed industrial action to consider a pay offer from the universities. Des Freedman writes

The marking boycott threatened by university staff in the UCU as part of their ongoing pay campaign has been suspended pending the outcome of a ballot over the employers’ ‘final’ offer. The boycott was due to start on 28 April but has been postponed while members consider whether they are prepared to accept a 2% rise for 2014/5 with a small additional increase for those at the very bottom of the pay scale.

The initial reaction of some members I spoke to was positive: their immediate response was that, thanks to our campaign of industrial action and the threat of a boycott, the employers had, at least, doubled their offer (of 1%) and reaffirmed national bargaining. However, when they realised that the 2% offer was for next year and that six days of strike action had resulted in no change to the 1% rise already imposed by most institutions (a pay cut heaped on top of five successive years of pay cuts), their mood changed significantly.

It is not, as some in the union leadership have argued, a ‘disappointing’ offer; it is a disastrous one that deserves a firm rejection in the ballot.

‘We have broken the public sector pay freeze’ argues the Independent Broad Left (IBL) in UCU by winning a figure that is above the 1% dumped on other public sector workers and above inflation measured by CPI. But how can you ‘break’ a pay freeze by accepting a pay cut? How can 2% be seen as anything other than a continuation of an attack on pay when RPI, the inflation figure that includes housing costs and excludes the top 4% of earners whose consumption somewhat distorts the true picture, remains at 2.7%?

The employers sought a one-off 2% rise partly in response to the unions’ campaign but also, and quite deliberately, in order to settle this year’s dispute and to prevent us from taking action next year to address the long-term decline in wages. This is far from ‘not ideal’ (as the IBLput it) but a slap in the face to the thousands who have campaigned vigorously since October 2013 for fair pay.

Hypocrisy

The UCU leadership has been right to point out the hypocrisy of a situation in which vice-chancellors received an average 5.5% pay rise at the same time as inflicting pay cuts on the rest of their staff. However, this is not simply a story of individual avarice – though it is tough not to gawp at the £466,000 (including relocation costs from the US!) received by Craig Calhoun at the LSE – but the logical consequence of the marketised context in which universities now find themselves.

A recent Times Higher Education story on university finances makes the point that the new fees regime has created enormous instability in the sector and an obligation on institutions to try to build up healthy surpluses to deal with the ‘known unknowns’ of the next few years. It’s not the case that every university is flush with cash (though some most definitely are judging by Imperial’s surplus of £65 million, Oxford’s £50 million and Manchester’s nearly £40 million) but that in a sector that is marked by endemic volatility, the one thing that many managements will agree on is the need to hold staff costs down. Thearticle quotes the director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies who argues that ‘when folk boast about the financial health of the sector, [we] need to note that the surpluses can’t help but emerge if pay is capped at 0.5 to 1 per cent per annum’. He concludes that ‘financial health fades away if ever UCU got a catch-up pay award.’

This is a scare story more than a statement of fact. We hear all the time about the problems that institutions are likely to face in the near future and how this will impact on their ability to afford pay increases: not simply the insecurity of a less regulated environment but the additional costs concerning pensions and National Insurance contributions that universities will have to bear. But far from scaling down our demand for fair pay – and indeed to catch up with the pay we have lost over the last five years – we should be arguing that fair pay for staff ought to be at the heart of institutions’ long-term financial forecasts. Otherwise, we will simply bear the brunt of the government’s neoliberal agenda and staff pay will continue to be targeted as a cost that should be sacrificed for increased ‘liquidity’ and ever-expanding surpluses.

Of course, this is precisely the behaviour we will have to expect from institutions fighting to stay afloat and a step ahead of their rivals in a marketised university system. Our defence of pay is, therefore, far from a self-interested act that has no consequences for wider questions of access and learning. Our pay campaign should target not just the excesses of vice-chancellors’ pay but also the botched accountancy that underlies government HE policy. It should place the defence of the concept of the public university – a system that makes quality education available to all – at the heart of the battle.

Infuriating

This is what makes the decision to suspend the boycott and to launch a ballot without even a recommendation by the Higher Education Committee to reject the offer so infuriating. Unlike in the previous marking boycott, we have received unprecedented support from students including backing for our action from the National Union of Students, helpful FAQs on the boycott from sympathetic student unions and videos and tweets such as #IBackTheBoycott. If students can see the links between our pay dispute and their own issues – of higher tuition fees, increased debt and a more customer-focused ‘service’ – then this places university staff in a strong position to mobilise together with them around issues of common concern.

In the week before the ballot closes, staff in universities need to throw themselves into winning a ‘no’ vote. The sector’s surpluses are not a figment of our imagination, the inflated salaries of senior staff are far from mythical and government mismanagement of higher education is nothing less than disastrous. Sadly, however, the prospect of continuing pay cuts is very real unless we argue that this dispute is still winnable. For now, that means conversations at the photocopier, mass emails, branch meetings and a firm rejection of the idea that the offer as it stands is in any way acceptable.

Whatever the result of the ballot, university staff and students will need to find ways of working together to address pay inequalities, for example, with campaigns to demand student representation on remuneration committees, to cap the salaries of senior staff, to ensure fair pay and conditions for hourly-paid and fractional staff, and to address the gender pay gap that was supposed to have been an essential part of the existing pay dispute. This is not to give ground to calls for local bargaining that are likely to become louder should the dispute be resolved now but simply to argue that the networks and arguments that have been cemented and proposed since last October need to find a home in every institution in the country. Even if the pay dispute is settled, the injustices still remain.

UCU strike

Des Freedman

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), chair of the Media Reform Coalition and secretary of Goldsmiths UCU.

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