Wednesday 30 October 2013

Why I will be on strike tomorrow.

Those of you who pay attention to the times I post here on Vole will be aware that far from being a lazy shirker getting fat on state-funded largesse at the expense of 'hard-working families' (copyright: all politicians), I actually find it hard to tear myself away from the dear old place. Being on campus for 12 hours per day is pretty normal for me.

And yet tomorrow I'll be standing outside my workplace, stamping my frozen feet and brandishing a placard and very politely asking colleagues and students not to enter the building. Not just to experience what I've read about in the 1930s proletarian novels I spend my life researching, but because we have a serious problem.

By most standards, I'm quite well paid: more than a schoolteacher of the same age and seniority, vastly less than a doctor or lawyer. However, that's just the headline figure. Like most of my colleagues, I've only achieved secure employment very late. After my first degree, I needed to get an MA and a PhD, which took a long time and sunk me in debt. For several years after that, I got by on hourly-paid teaching: a bit of Politics here, a semester of Sociology there, a dollop of Media Studies. The work wasn't reliable, stable or predictable. Pay arrived months late, and didn't cover the hours marking, research and extra tuition required to do a good job for my students and my colleagues. Summer was entirely income-free and a pension was a distant rumour. Financial disaster was narrowly averted a few times through gifts and by selling treasured possessions. I finally achieved permanent status (with the help of sympathetic management) in my mid-thirties, long after most people would be thinking about mortgages and families.

There's a whole army of colleagues out there teaching classes every day without a scrap of security, and carrying huge debts earned in pursuit of a moderately paid job. They spend their salaries on petrol and train tickets as they shuttle between 3 hours at X University and 2 hours at Y College in the vain hope that one day, one day a bean-counter will realise their true worth and find some way to given them a decent job. You just can't tell us apart because we're all so damned impressive in class (ahem). Even those of us with decent jobs got there very late, meaning that our apparently excellent pensions aren't nearly so gold-plated as you'd think. My retirement date is currently 2046, and it's absolutely certain that it will be extended several years beyond that by the time I get there. Most of my students think I'm a boring old fart now: what will they make of a septuagenarian trying to comprehend their cultural world by then, trapped in the classroom by the urgent need to earn enough to avoid burning my books for fuel? Academics are like footballers, only more attractive and less likely to steal each others' partners or start fights in nightclubs (some exceptions apply): our careers are shorter than in other professions, and rely on the repeated demonstration of very individual skills – a decent salary and secure pension isn't too much to ask.

The immediate cause of this strike is this year's pay offer. It's 1%, which is an effective pay-cut because inflation is around 3-3.5%. This is the fifth consecutive pay cut, meaning that we're 13% poorer than we were in 2008. I hear politicians and business leaders explaining that management bonuses and huge salaries are essential to attract talent: how are universities meant to attract the bright young academics of the future if they're left with little to eat but professional pride? You can bet your ass that most universities' senior executives aren't accepting these settlements: only dishing them out. My university is spending nearly £40m on much-needed buildings to offer students top-quality educational opportunities: if only they could find the tinier sum needed to make sure that those labs and lecture halls will be staffed by eager, motivated teachers.

My university recently renamed the Personnel department 'Human Resources'. Well, let me tell you this: Soylent Green is people! We're not just a fixed cost, or a 'fungible asset' (as one of my IT friends was once called by his boss). Yet the way the government and the more business-aligned academic leaders talk, we're no longer professionals with duties beyond the merely contractual (to society, to students, to public culture), we're disposable delivery units to be sweated and discarded.

Tomorrow morning, my students are going to be confused and upset when their classes are cancelled and they see me asking for their support. I hope they will see our cause as just, and as a microcosm of this country's ugly turn towards a low-wage, low-skill, high-dividend economy in which shareholder profits trump justice, fairness, the public good and collective benefit. Some of those students, carrying £50,000 of undergraduate debt, will be lost to academia because they can't face additional years of debt and study to qualify for a job which pays less and less and attracts only the scorn and hatred of the political class and their media lackeys.

I can live with a fifth pay cut in a row. I'm striking because I can't see where this will ever end.


AnnaD said...

All so well put as usual, Vole. Yes, years of study and then hourly-paid contracts and 'lost' payslips, etc. I've a good friend who has publications and forthcoming peer-reviewed material. That person has now left HE which is terrible, she was much praised as a lecturer (when she could actually get a few hours)and liked by the students. If HE can't pay/employ people with qualifications, commitment and talent, what hope is there.

Anonymous said...

Agree with every word. I'd like to add the disruption caused by the geographic dispersal of jobs. Doctors, lawyers and teachers can all decide to live somewhere and seek a job there; early career academics have to move across the country on a yearly or twice-yearly basis for their 60% 4-month teaching fellowships. That costs money, too, and destroys relationships and the support structures that make casualised work manageable.

Anonymous said...

@helenfinch you might be interested (but saddened) to hear that what you say about doctors is wrong. Following the "modernising medical careers" reform, they cannot choose where to seek work. they apply for training in one of several (vast, except London) regions and work where they are told within the region they get a post in (flexibility and openness to moves varies between place and speciality). this can split families by hundreds of miles for quite long periods (indefinitely, in theory).