Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Solidarity, baby!

Hi everyone. I'm not blogging properly again: it's been one of the busiest weeks in years and I'm rushed off my feet. But here's a letter I've just sent to the President of The Dark Place's Students' Union. 

Dear President, 
thank you for your email asking me if I could help out with the Students’ Union’s University Challenge effort this year. As you know, I’m a huge fan of the show and would love to see our students do well.  
However, I feel I must decline your request. As you know, academic staff took strike action yesterday and are working to contract. This is because our salaries have reverted to their 2008 level, with further real-terms reductions projected some years into the future. As a hard-working, committed, conscientious academic, I support students well beyond my contractual duties, as any of them will tell you. My colleagues in the library, the cleaning staff, the caterers and security guards all do their best for students, in public and in a thousand little ways which might never be noticed. This university is rightly proud of the ‘student experience’, but it never acknowledges that its success is dependent on the good will and free labour provided by staff who go the extra mile, not for money, but because it’s the right thing to do.  
Yesterday, I stood on the picket line, in the cold, for hours. Between explaining to strike-breaking colleagues and passing students why I wasn’t in a nice warm classroom – which is my natural and favourite environment – I followed the Twitter feeds of fellow academics and students across the country. I saw Students’ Unions at Warwick, Birmingham, Sussex and many other places joining their friends on the picket lines, or occupying their universities.
What you won't see at The Dark Place

They know that to attract and retain good teachers, cooks, cleaners and other workers who make the ‘student experience’ so good, universities need to stop squeezing their standard of living.  
What did your Students’ Union do? As far as I can tell, the Student Council has no policy on this matter. The Executive decided to make policy in breach of its own constitution, and decided to remain ‘neutral’ as you put it to me. I and my UCU colleagues are not ‘neutral’. Nor are you fellow student leaders in the NUS and across the country. They know that good staff make life good for students. I am desperately sorry that the Dark Place’s Students’ Union is ‘neutral’ when faced with declining living standards.  
I’m sorry I can’t help with University Challenge and wish you well. But it’s just a giggle in the end. What will really help students is solidarity in our fight to make sure that this institution can attract and retain motivated, secure staff, whatever their jobs: some of them are or will be your members. We support your members every day: when it came to the crunch, you failed to support us. Until this changes, I won’t be taking on additional duties, however much I enjoyed them. 
Plashing Vole 


Alex said...

I mean these as genuine questions and not to offend so I apologise if it comes off any differently. I have every sympathy with what you're doing.

That said, I have to ask:

1. Do you believe that the people "higher up" in the University are doing what is in its best interests by acting the way they do?

2. If no, what do you think they should be doing? And how far into the long term is your union looking?

3. Do you think the proverbial writing is on the wall with regards to subjects such as yours as an academic enterprise in institutions such as the dark place? If so why are you still there? If not, what will change?

Tony Hinks said...

I'm afraid that the SU aims most of it's concerns at free drinks deals in bars and selling doughnuts.

There seems to be a moral and political void in its approach. I think students are appreciative of the work of academics, support staff, security, catering etc. but there seems to be a lack of coordinated support on strike days.

Poor show but perhaps it reflects the times.

Great post though. Keep fighting.

Zoe said...

Well I guess this is overdue. I didn't get elected to not have an opinion and not be a little controversial every now and then, particularly after the last comment...*

*Thoughts are my own - not of the organisation, and all that jazz.

Firstly, I feel it's necessary to state that the Students' Union exists solely to represent the needs of students. We are run by students for students, as we so frequently say. That is our ethos, and will always be our ethos. It does not, I repeat, does not owe itself to free drinks deals. Yes, we have contracts with external bars, but the truth is that the income generated from that is not enough to prop us up as much as you may think. These contracts ensure students' safety, and ensure value for money in these times of austerity that are paramount to your argument and indeed, your inclination to strike. Yes, we also facilitate students to sell plenty o' doughnuts (Krispy Kreme, I might add)... But in doing so, our Islamic Society, raised over £5000 for orphans - people who are more worse off than the student body themselves, but particularly a lot more worse off than the effects of the decrease of your somewhat healthy salaries.

The Students' Union prides itself in the support it offers to students. Ok, some students may not realise the work that we do, and indeed our work can sometimes go unnoticed too. Let's not be martyrs here. But my point is this - we work tirelessly and fight for every single student that comes through our doors every single day. Our Advice and Support Centre is an asset to us. They see students on a daily basis who come to us at the peak of their desperation. Mentally and emotionally, physically and more often than not financially. Now, had we have chosen to close the service that we pride ourselves on so much, then who knows what predicament we could be facing right now! Essentially, on that day we could've potentially been standing on your picket line, we would've not fulfilled our duty that we work so hard to uphold. To that minority of students, we'd have failed.

I won't ever disagree that the quality of education is fundamentally implemented by those who teach them, however, many students fail to see the worth of their tuition fees. Now, I'm no advocate of 'students as consumers' and will forever support the notion that students are 'partners', but unfortunately, not everyone is like you, Plashing Vole. The world is a marketplace, and university is no different. When students don't feel that they're getting, I hate to say it, "value for money" they might not be so inclined to freeze their assets off on the picket line.

As for the Executive, indeed it was business as usual. We had, and still have bigger fish to fry. We were working as we do every day fighting for the cause that is of most importance to us; students. Yes, you support us, which we are forever thankful for, but it does not come without mass justification on our part. I could go on and on, but next time I invite you as we have since done, to venture into the 'Dark Place', come and speak to us, present us with your argument, justify your reasoning just like we have to do at every given opportunity. We might even surprise you. So I'm sorry that you think we 'failed' you, but until that time, we will continue to do what we do best, and what we were elected to do - support our students, and fight for what matters to them.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi everybody. Thanks for your comments.

OK. Alex first:
1. I think some of the senior management are doing what they think is in the best interests of the university.

2. I can't answer for everyone in the union, and I have major disagreements with the leadership. But I think it does have a fairly good grip on what's happening to the HE sector.

3. I do worry about the future of Humanities. I'm here because I like working here, and because jobs are hard to find.

Tony: I do feel that the SU here has lost its political purpose, mainly due to hard work on the part of the university's management. It's not as cynical as you suggest though, and it does some really important things, as Zoe points out.

Zoe. Thanks for posting - I'm really glad you did. Especially as the President hasn't answered my letter. Hope this doesn't sound too testy, as I have a considerable degree of respect for you.

I don't have any quarrel with your first paragraph at all. Nor with most of your second one. I wouldn't want you to shut up shop, but I would like UoW students, with SU leadership, to have joined us as so many other students did across the country because one day's disruption is nothing compared with the ongoing disruption of reduced standards of living. By the way: lots of people on strike are on the minimum wage - it wasn't just lecturers.

I don't think we should accept that the university should be a marketplace just because the rest of society now is. That said, it's perfectly fair for your students to ask where their fees are going. Think of this: fees go up by inflation and more quite often. Staff salaries go down, year after year. So where's the money going? Shouldn't some of it be spent on attracting the next generation of great teachers, researchers, cleaners, cooks and librarians? That's 'value for money'!

When did you invite me to speak to the Exec or student body? I'm sure the university management put its case to you…

You've missed my point about Exec's decision to be neutral: as far as I can see in your constitution, Executive doesn't decide policy, the Student Council does. When did it take this decision?

Finally, I'd say this: supporting your students includes fighting for decent conditions for the people who look after them, not looking on while things get worse for them.

I feel that this Students' Union has lost its independence from the university, and any sense of the wider politics of student life. Not entirely, but it's there.

fraternally yours,