Monday, 21 March 2011

Mancunion Article: Oppose Lecturer Strikes

Written in to accompany and oppose a pro-strikes article in The Mancunion, issue of 21/03/11.

Do you ever wish you had less contact time, or that the university spent less money on you? A lecturers strike is a direct contact hours cut that diverts money away from students. If that sounds appealing, then you should consider supporting any and all industrial action taken by the University and College Union (UCU) over the coming months. If not, then you should oppose industrial action by lecturers, and so should the representatives you elected to defend your interests in the students union.

I’ve defended tuition fees on these pages before, and those interested in reading that argument can find it on The Mancunion’s website. Instead of repeating myself here with another examination of the structural problems with higher education funding, I’ll look at whether a strike could work, and whether the costs of a strike, let alone the costs of a strike winning, are worth it for students.

Before I go on though, it is worth remembering that the reason for the drastic restructuring of the way that higher education is operated and funded is that the previous Labour government vastly increased access to higher education to people from diverse and often disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. The days of free higher education and one to one tutorials where the days when the percentage of school-leavers going to university was in single figures, and that narrow strata was largely wealthy. Tuition fees are the price we pay for access in any realistic scenario.

So would a strike actually work, and would the cost of its success be worth it in reward for students? The normal way a strike operates is simple: labour ceases to work, thus stopping the production of product. Without product to sell, the company loses profit and risks losing its customers to other, still-working companies. This doesn’t translate very well into the university model, because the university takes your money at the beginning of each year and once you’re signed up to a course it is very difficult to simply drop it and up sticks to another university. Thus short strikes – i.e. strikes a student could support without it (usually) having a serious impact on their studies – are hugely unlikely to work. The university already has your money, and you’re not going anywhere.

A longer strike might deliver some results, but what then? Obviously, a long strike is hugely detrimental to students in terms of contact hours and teaching. The chances of a lecturer strike actually overturning or reversing government policy is minimal. Worse still, the result of any vaguely realistic victory is the preservation of a pension timebomb that will do more than any government or university cut to sabotage the future of higher education.

Final-salary pensions such as those offered through the USS are a model that has been almost completely abandoned in the private sector because, with an ageing population and greatly increased life-expectancy, they are completely unsustainable; a lot more retirees are living a lot longer than they did with final salary pensions were introduced. The maintenance of such schemes in the public sector is a major reason that improvements in that sector in the last decade are not even close to being commensurate to ballooning costs. In short our university, like everyone else, can no longer afford its current pension scheme.

If one accepts that the phasing out of final-salary pensions is inevitable if you don’t want to bankrupt the university (which would be bad for students, obviously) then negotiating new terms for new entrants is vital. If we don’t renegotiate pensions, where does the money come from? The University could levy the money through higher fees, which even under Browne remain capped well below the necessary price, and/or it could cut back in modernisation and investment programs. Put bluntly, it could substitute long-term investment in developing resources and facilities to fund what amount to straight short-term costs (and a long-term disaster) in the form of a completely unsustainable pension scheme.

As a humanities student myself, the situation is particularly dire. My contact time is minimal, and every lecture and seminar covers a whole area of a module that we won’t come back to again. Missing topics and losing precious contact hours not only wastes the money that I have already paid for them at the start of the year, but narrows the range of material upon which I can be assessed and reduces my opportunities to learn. Why on earth, then, would I support a strike?

If you support lecturer strikes as part of a wider struggle against right-of-centre government, then this article isn’t for you. If you think the university can improve provision, widen access and modernise facilities while maintaining low fees and inflated labour costs, I hope you find the end of the rainbow in time. But if you want to protect your contact hours, see the university spend on long-term investment in facilities and resources, and avoid needless deterioration of contact hours and education quality caused by inefficient spending that doesn’t benefit students, then you should oppose any strikes by lecturers, and your students union should support you.

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