Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Pre-strike portmanteau post

It's Tuesday. I wouldn't normally post this early in the week (it's quite a while since I was blogging 4 times per day!) but the rest of the week isn't going to be normal.

Today sees the first Staff Summer Party over at the other campus. There are rides and ice-cream stalls and a bucking bronco because that's what academics really want to do apparently. Truth be told, a summer tea party after a long year is rather a nice idea, but this one falls on the eve of our strike. We all got a letter from the Vice-Chancellor explaining that we should all be satisfied with a 1.1% pay rise after 8 years of below-inflation settlements, and that he's very very disappointed with our ingratitude (I paraphrase, but only slightly). I've suggested that the party be renamed the Let Them Eat Cake bash, but apparently that's not helpful.

I wouldn't mind, but that very day the Times Higher Education Supplement published a report which singled out our VC for his 19.6% pay rise: a very handy £44,000 which should see him through the summer. The Chair of the Governors told THES that the rise is due to the VC's excellent performance, while forgetting to mention – and this is in the publicly available records – that the VC's salary is being increased to the median for the sector as a matter of policy.

Now, I'm a governor of this institution (though I'm excluded from the Renumeration Committee) and am bound by a duty of confidentiality, so I can't give you all the details, but I can give you my view. Academic staff are not rewarded for 'results': we're assessed and appraised and criticised and occasionally praised, but not rewarded. Only senior executives – some of whom are demonstrably ignorant of what goes on in classrooms – are afforded bonus payments and a salary scheme which depends on an all-universities pay survey. What this essentially means is that the senior managements of all universities are on a one-way conveyor belt of pay uplifts. If senior pay is benchmarked to a sector average, all they have to do is tell each other that this year, they've deserved an increase. Hey presto, they all get one! As we say round here, credit and money rise to the top. Only blame trickles downwards.

To be honest, if it wasn't for the sight of people on 20% pay rises sending out threatening emails telling us we're greedy I wouldn't mind so much about the salary. What I do object to is the complete absence of analytical rigour. Universities' monies are loans from students, to be paid off (over decades). I want to see a Vice Chancellor or a Head of Finance of a university – which is a charity, let's not forget – stand in front of a student and explain why he or she deserves to soak up the £9000 fees of 30 students (45 for Birmingham University's VC) while they're being taught often by insecurely-employed, part-time teachers who are expected to produce world-class research, generate external funding and top-class National Student Survey reports while often being employed on zero-hours contracts.

Academics aren't fat-cats. We're like footballers in that our careers start very late: I did 4 degrees to become fully qualified and worked on an hourly-paid basis until I was 34, so I've missed out on at least a decade of savings, pension contributions and housing costs. My female colleagues have done the same, except that those who take time off to have children lose out even more. Our pensions have been slashed while the contributions have increased. And yet I'm expected to keep quiet while the VC gets a top-up equivalent to my annual salary. We're not like footballers in that football managers don't get all the money when the team plays well.

We all know what happened to the banking sector. They were captured by a group of employees who treated their institutions as personal piggy banks, and therefore thought it was OK to use shady and often illegal methods to achieve short-term gains for themselves while bringing about a global recession for which we all paid. Education is too important to be captured by uncollegiate, self-reinforcing circles of sharp-suited snake-oil salesmen and women, convinced by their MBA training that they and they alone have 'saved' their institutions and deserve corporate rewards, while the teachers, technicians and support staff are simply fungible assets to be sweated and discarded.

Universities need managers, and the skills required to keep a complex, enormous institution like a university going aren't necessarily the same as those required to propel an academic to the top of her field – I don't think we can manage without them. However, I do now feel like the public service ideals which underpinned the collective enterprise of the academy have been replaced by a Directors and Hands structure whereby our views are unwelcome and our labour to be sweated.

How can I say to my nephews and nieces – and my fresh-faced PhD students –  that they should consider a career in teaching and research when they could get a decent job at 21 with a BA or even no degree at all? My life is mostly brilliant: I spend all day talking about books and get paid for it. I spend my classroom time with students and colleagues who are a pleasure to be with – but I'm old. If I were 21 and burdened with £50,000 of debts I'm not sure that the simple pleasures of intellectual enlightenment would make up for another decade of unemployment, another £50,000 of debt, of scrabbling around for enough hours to make ends meet, followed by decades of bullying and pay cuts delivered by someone with a chauffeur-driven limo and an air of bemused contempt? That's a tough gig.

That's why tomorrow I'll be out on the picket line with my bags of peanuts (representing our pay offer) and some 'filled pockets' Whiskas treats for the fat cats as they sweep past us.


Alan said...

Good luck on the picket line. I'm a Dark Place graduate - Ph.D. 1998, supervised by Paul Willis. I was 51 when I finished there. The VC - Layer, is it? - doesn't understand the institution he manages. It's done wonders with non-traditional, mature, working-class students, and it somehow acquires as VC a dipstick who wants to hike student fees. The mind boggles!

Cherry said...

'an air of bemused contempt' - that just about sums it up.

One small point - 'There are rides and ice-cream stalls and a bucking bronco because that's what academics really want to do apparently'. This stuff wasn't just laid on for academics, the party was for all staff. Academics are not the only people who work at the university, you know.