Making common cause

Callum Williamson on the offensive against university workers and students

Workers and students, unite

The strike action taking place in universities across the UK this week follows the refusal of the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to resume national negotiations with Unite, Unison, the University and College Union, the Educational Institute of Scotland and the GMB (the last two of which are not currently taking action).

Among other things, the unions are seeking an increase in pay above retail price index; action on a national level to address the gender pay gap in higher education; an agreement on working to reduce long-hours in the industry; and a living wage for university staff in London. Disappointingly for Unite, Unison and the UCU the strike ballot turnout was poor - the largest, that of UCU members, was 35% - and the vote in favour of strike varying ranging between 54% and 64%. The momentum is not with the unions and it appears many workers in the industry view pay restraint as something they have to accept in the context of a general decline in real wages.

Following a 13% fall in real wages since 2008, the UCEA have offered university workers a 1% pay rise, claiming that “joint work” around flexible working arrangements, casual contracts and the gender pay gap is on the table, while offering nothing concrete on these issues. The unions point out that a report this year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that there was a cumulative operating surplus of over £1 billion within higher education (the UCEA claims that the unions are using old figures and the surplus forecast for this year is a mere £380 million). Unions have also cited the increase in executive pay in recent years as evidence that funds are available. Vice-chancellors receive an average pay and pensions packet of almost £250,000 (up on average by £5,000 in 2011-12), leading to a 1:19 pay ratio between the lowest and highest paid individuals in the sector.1

The universities pretend this is necessary to ensure talented managers remain within the sector, despite the fact that such individuals usually play no role either in education itself or in research (or like other non-academic staff in facilitating it - if anything they hinder the supposed function of universities to stimulate the flow of ideas and expansion of knowledge). The obvious consequence is that the managerial layer becomes an ever increasing drain on the resources available to universities.

Besides pay, the industrial action is demanding an end to insecure employment contracts and the increased workload of academic staff. The widespread use of zero-hour contracts in UK universities is something the unions want to see addressed - freedom-of-information requests by the UCU revealed that around 53% of higher education institutions employ some staff on zero-hour contracts, with 46% employing more than 200 workers in this way.

The prevalence of fixed-term contracts in HE (affecting 36% of academic staff in the UK in 2011-12)2 is another concern for the unions. Recent legislation has meant that workers on fixed-term contracts are excluded from collective redundancy negotiations when their contract has come to an end - as the UCU pointed out, this situation has resulted from legislation for which the UCEA lobbied. The widespread use of such terms of employment places more power in the hands of university management and enables them to attack pay and conditions of staff with greater ease.

On November 1 the UCU will be commencing ‘short-of-strike’ action by working to contract. Last week when I attended a joint UCU-Unison meeting at the University of Westminster in preparation for the current strike there was an expectation among those present that this is the beginning of what will be a long campaign involving strikes and other forms of action. Some present were concerned that if this fight is not won not only would this lead to a prolonged period in which wages are held down, but that it would demonstrate to employers the inability of the HE unions to force them back into negotiation and may present a serious threat to national bargaining. It was suggested that a strong turnout at enough universities may put pressure on management to try and bring other university employers back to the national negotiation table if they saw that they would not benefit from an end to national bargaining. If, however, the strategy of the university employers is to break the power of the unions in higher education, it seems unlikely that they would return to negotiations without well-supported and sustained action from the unions - action that the union bureaucracies are not exactly rushing to call.

This dispute must be viewed in the context of the remodelling of higher education that has been underway for over two decades and has been aimed primarily at ensuring universities meet the needs of capital in relation to research and the labour market. Along with the introduction of tuition fees and the commodification of teaching and research has come an increased effort to lower costs and increase ‘output’. This drive has been behind the redundancies; the casualisation; the tailoring of teaching towards results rather than learning; and the increase in the number of bureaucratic tasks academic workers must complete to ensure the quality of their teaching or research - all of which have become more prevalent in recent years. The shifting roles of students (‘consumers’) and academic workers will also undoubtedly have a significant impact on campus politics.

It may be premature to say so, but the instrumentalisation of education, combined with the proletarianisation of academic work, could lead to a situation where university workers become increasingly radicalised by their antagonistic relationship with management and students become relatively far more passive and demobilised politically. University managements increasingly try to exploit the new consumer status of the indebted student in order to win support for attacks on the pay and conditions of those providing their education by arguing that it is in their interests to ensure they get ‘value for money’.

At my university a small group of rightwingers have started a petition arguing that the unions have acted irresponsibly (surprise, surprise) and that students ought to receive a refund for ‘contact hours lost’. Whilst so far this has received little attention, there is certainly a danger that such attitudes will become more widespread. We on the revolutionary left must answer those who would divide students from education workers by advocating the necessity of student-worker solidarity against the combined interest of capital, management and the state; and by counterposing our present situation not to some golden age in the past, but to a future of free education and democratically run universities - a society beyond capitalism in which the generation of knowledge is not regarded as a form of property and in which all have access to the accumulated intellectual wealth of our species and the prospect of fulfilment and self-liberation.

There is no guarantee that victories against capital within higher education will be won in the near future. What is therefore required is the patient building of support for a campaign along the lines of what I have set out. There is no solution to exploitative work practices, bureaucratic control and the influence of capital over curricula within the campus alone. There is a whole world to win beyond it. 

Notes

1. D Ashley, ‘Pay gap at university is biggest in public sector and getting bigger, says report’, UCU website, October 17.

2. www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_conten t&task=view&id=2694&Itemid=161.