Put simply, we're working harder, for longer, for less.
We've tried taking strike action. No response. My own university claimed that only 16-23 people actually went on strike, which is either a deliberate lie or a massive administrative cock-up. We're working to rule, or trying to. No response. The universities are determined to keep reducing our wages for the foreseeable future. It's not as if there's no money: the UK's universities are sitting on surpluses of well over a billion pounds. My own employer is putting up new buildings costing well over £20m without having to borrow a penny. It's recruiting yet more senior executives at 'competitive' salaries despite telling us that we should be grateful to have jobs at all.
So the next stage is a marking boycott. To be honest, it's the last thing I want to do. It impacts directly on students, especially those due to graduate. It's caused a howl of protest from some university students, particularly those infesting Twitter with the hashtag #markmywork, driven by the University of Hertfordshire Students' Union.
Now we academics largely idealise students. We respect them, we work hard for them, we assume that they have the best motives for their presence on campus. That's the only basis on which we can operate and we usually find that it's true. Yes, some individuals cheat, slack or are motivated by ideals other than the pure pursuit of intellectual development, but on the whole they're lovely people who deserve our respect. (It's also true that a small number of academics don't think like this, but it's a tiny minority).
#Markmywork is the dark side of the equation. The campaign reveals the consumerist, individualist mentality that stems from a marketised culture of education. It's misinformed, cynical and unreasonable.
Firstly: what else are we meant to do? Having been fully proletarianised, our only option is to withdraw our labour. If we worked in a factory, we'd stop the production line. Marking is the exact equivalent. We're faced with employers who see us as a workforce rather than as professionals with wider duties towards the community and culture. Yes it hurts. Yes, we'd rather not be doing it. Complain to your university: they can end this at a stroke.
I'm also concerned at the constant drumbeat of credentialism here: the idea that time at university is 'wasted' if the grades aren't on the system entirely ignores the student's intellectual and moral development over those three years. Grades and certificates are far less important than these things, and they haven't stopped. Remember: we haven't stopped educating, just marking.
Do students really think that £9000 per year a) goes on our salaries and b) covers the cost of their education? If so, we've done a very poor job of communicating the bizarre and immoral structure of higher education funding in the UK.
I find this all so very depressing. We do respect students. So much so that we want the people dedicated to transforming your lives paid appropriately. So many people are on part-time or casual contracts. Marking is often done for a very nominal fee utterly divorced from the real time spent on it. We study on average for an extra ten years, working the same kinds of low-paid jobs that students get just to qualify for an academic job. I'm 38. I was 34 before I got a regular salary, despite working in higher education since 2000 and carrying the debts of a BA, MA and PhD. You would not believe how many of the people marking your work are paid by the hour, struggling from one semester to the next and driving up and down the country trying to find a few hours here and there. So no, Helena, academics don't get paid enough.
My own students' union does a very good job of advising and representing students in distress. Its executive team dress nicely and go to a lot of meetings with management. The idea of supporting academic staff, taking the long view or even disagreeing with the university executive is, sadly, an alien concept. When I was a young student activist, I looked forward to receiving the latest threatening legal letter from the university, to winding up the men in suits and reading the faux-outrage of the local Tory rag - and yet my lecturers would shake their heads sadly and tell us of their own militancy 'back in the day', after which students had become too timid and individualist to take action. That'll never happen to me, I thought. Sad old men. And now look at me… railing against the selfishness of a generation deliberately stripped of community feeling and political consciousness by an all-pervading neoliberal hegemony.
I still like and respect the vast majority of my students, and feel sorry for those enunciating the feelings expressed via #markmywork. But they make it difficult. To them I say this: you know we're not lazy. You see the effort we put in during lectures and tutorials, online and in person. My students see the energy and enthusiasm with which I teach. They know I'm always available. They don't see the multiple committees I sit on, the admin I do, the long hours I put in (I'm frequently here for 13 hours), the research I produce and the myriad other things we all do essentially for free. I say to the students promoting #markmywork that they, and my colleagues are the university: not the management that sees us as costs and you as customers, as figures on a spreadsheet. We support you, day in, day out. Try reciprocating, just for once. Phone your Vice-Chancellor. Complain through your SU. Come out and support us.