I am a lecturer, currently on strike. I am also a part-time MA student, whose lecturers are on strike. And I am the mother of a student whose lecturers are on strike. There have been attempts by many vice-chancellors to pit students and their parents against striking staff, often by positioning staff as selfish and greedy, and students as the consumers whose livelihoods they harm. But even though I dread the hole in my next pay packet, and know exactly what it is like to see classes disappear when I have an essay to write, and though I feel for my daughter, who worries about the impact this will have on her degree – and therefore her future – for me there has been no moment of doubt, no internal war. Becky Gardiner, senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, writes in the Guardian
The issue that has led to this dispute is pensions, and yet large numbers of casualised staff are on the picket line too – part of a growing cohort of young academics for whom the only jobs on offer are paid hourly, and meagrely, with no security and very little opportunity to do research. Viewed from the precarious position of many staff and most students, pensions of any sort must seem like an impossible dream. So why do the majority of them support us?
Partly, because they can see the injustice. Often presented as if a gift, like some fat cat’s golden handshake, pensions are in fact part of our pay. People who choose to teach in universities do so because they believe that teaching and research are a public good, and worth doing in return for modest pay and a decent pension. So when the vice-chancellors, represented by Universities UK (UUK), announced their intention to switch from a “defined benefit” scheme to a “defined contribution” scheme, the betrayal was keenly felt.
The fact that the majority of vice-chancellors involved have now publicly distanced themselves from UUK’s position, including Oxford, Cambridge, and others who appeared implacably hostile to the strikers’ demands only days ago, is a sign of the weakness of their argument, as well as the strength of the strike. Many universities have expressed dismay at how their own contribution to UUK’s “consultation” was presented. UUK also claimed that defined benefits have become prohibitively expensive – a claim that turned out to rest on an implausible scenario in which every university went bust tomorrow, and which has been challenged even by the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, universities enjoy record surpluses, vice-chancellors are being given obscene salaries and lavish expenses, and cash is poured into trophy buildings to make the “brand” easier to “sell”. And all while junior staff struggle to pay their rent, and students in huge debt sit in overcrowded seminars.
The real reason for the widespread support for the strike is that these broader attacks on education as a public service affect the entire academic community – the full-time staff, the casualised staff, and, of course, the students.
The problems we face – debt, increasing workloads, precarity, mental health issues – are not only shared, but systemic. Students understand that staff working conditions are their learning conditions; staff understand that students’ financial stress is an assault on their freedom to learn. On the picket lines, the conversation has not been about pensions, but how we can democratise universities, and restore them to their real purpose. Every member of the academic community knows education is potentially life-enhancing, liberating, world-changing. That is something worth fighting for.
Read the full article Why I’m a striking lecturer: I want to stop the slow death of public education
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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