Unite, UCU, Unison, GMB and EIS members working in post-16 education are striking for fair pay as five years of poverty pay rises take their toll

UCU StrikeStaff in universities across the UK will be joined by college lecturers in England when they walk out on strike this Tuesday in protest at pay offers that are, once again, well below inflation: 1% in higher education (HE) and 0.7% in further education (FE).  Following the ‘Halloween’ strike involving HE workers, there will now be picket lines in every town and city consisting of members of UCU, Unison, EIS and GMB – the latest sign of opposition to austerity and marketisation.

The issue of pay is, of course, highly significant. Since 2009, UCU members in HE, for example, have had pay cuts resulting in an average cumulative loss of 13%. This is at a time when money from student tuition fees is pouring into the sector so that there is now an operating surplus inside HE of over £2 billion. For those in FE, the squeeze is even greater, with the pay of a typical lecturer worth over £4,000 less in real terms than in 2009.

Not everyone, however, is in the same boat. The assault on wages is happening at the same time as an unprecedented boom for those at the top. There are, for example, over 2,500 people in HE earning more than £100,000 a year, with half of all vice-chancellors earning over £242,000 a year. Ordinary staff, meanwhile, have faced increased casualisation, rising workloads and cuts to pensions over the last few years.

War on the young

All of this is taking place in the context of rising youth unemployment, with nearly one million young people out of work and a jobless rate of those under 25 standing at nearly four times that of the over-25s. Instead of investing more in education and training to equip young people with skills and knowledge to ride out the recession, the government is intent on punishing them and reducing their life chances. Ministers who scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in England in 2010 – a vital source of support for working class students – are now threatening to withdraw housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance from some under 25s. This is all part of a war on the young.

The government, however, has shown not just a disregard for the lives of young people but a staggering incompetence in overseeing its own market reforms. Andrew McGettigan revealed recently in the Guardian that the budget of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills will have to be cut by some £1.4 billion in the next two years to pay for the increased demand for loans, a substantial part of which is generated by students in private colleges where there are few of the restraints that are placed on publicly regulated institutions.

This is a market literally out of control. Staggeringly, one of the schemes that is most likely to be scrapped given the funding shortfall is the National Scholarship Programme, a watered down version of a proper widening participation policy, that was championed by Nick Clegg as evidence of his continuing commitment to disadvantaged students at the time when he dropped all opposition to tuition fee rises. Presumably, he now realises that no student will ever vote for him again so there is little to be gained by clinging onto any remaining progressive-minded policies.

Marketising education

We are told that, just as university and college employers cannot afford a decent pay rise despite money in the bank, market reforms of further and higher education was necessary at a time of austerity. But the government’s introduction of fees and loans was never about saving money. It was always designed to massage the public accounts and to demonstrate its love of free enterprise. That’s why the claim – by universities minister, David Willetts, that the recent sell-off of student debt from the 1990s worth £890 million but sold for £160 million represented ‘good value for money, helping to reduce public sector net debt’ – is so laughable. Not only is his understanding of what constitutes ‘good value’ completely demented, but the idea that reducing the country’s net debt by 0.000133% is of any real significance is equally risible. This is not about good value but about an ideological commitment to free markets, whatever the cost to the public.

And the cost has indeed been huge – not simply in terms of massively increased debt to those who do get to study but also in terms of the widening of social inequality. Since 2010/11, for example, part-time undergraduate numbers have fallen by some 40% with a 27% drop in postgraduates. Even the official regulator, HEFCE, admitted that these decreases ‘are likely to have implications for equality and diversity’ and to have a disproportionate impact on non-traditional students, mature students and men from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is at the same time that young people living in richer parts of the country are between six and nine times more likely to go to selective universities.

The pay dispute therefore has to be seen in this wider context: of a neoliberal restructuring of post-16 education that is set to reward the wealthy and to target the poor and to introduce competition, market forces and private actors into the delivery of higher education whenever possible.

In this context, the pay dispute should be seen and fought not as a simple battle over a few hundred pounds but over the broader future of an education system which is being ravaged by the ideological desire of successive governments to make it function just like any other private institution.

Turning the tide

Those involved in the dispute should learn lessons from the militancy on display in the various occupations and protests that are popping up in the education sector. Students can inspire lecturers as they engage in their battles against outsourcing and casualisation; staff, meanwhile, need to win the support of students by arguing that a quality education depends on the existence of motivated and energised staff – and not ones who are infuriated by year after year of pay cuts while they see pay rises for vice chancellors and college principals.

The union leaderships need also take heed of these campaigns, which often capture the imagination not only of activists but also of those who are angry about what’s happening to education but lack confidence about their ability to do something about it. In UCU, for example, the original plan was to escalate the action from a one-day strike in October to two days in November should there be no movement from the employers. It appears that a one-day strike in December was eventually agreed in order to maintain unity with other unions. Of course, the campaign will be more effective with more unions taking part, but this should not prevent individual unions from taking additional action and from pursuing their own tactics alongside ones agreed by all unions. The danger is that dispersed one-day strikes punctuated by the often more intangible action of a ‘work to rule’ will fail to build the momentum that we need to keep all members together.

There is another response that I hear within HE: that staff are to blame because we let the government get away with the tuition fee rises and that too many of us are compliant with their market ‘reforms’. Of course this is true of some people but all it does is fuel pessimism and passivity. The strike next week, on the other hand, offers at least the possibility of a collective response to managerialism and market fundamentalism. The more we organise lively pickets backed up with teach-outs, demonstrations and rallies that involve the local community and our students, the more chance we have to make the noise and win the support we will need to start to turn the tide in post-16 education.

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 co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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