Strike action by about 60,000 workers is set to take place across higher education on Tuesday of next week, followed by action short of strike including an appraisal and assessment boycott.
The action will involve members of the new University and Colleges Union (UCU), formed by the merger of the AUT and Natfhe unions, which will represent lecturers and many other academic-related staff.
The strike will challenge the employers’ negative response to the UCU pay claim. The attitude of university managers reflect their acceptance of New Labour’s neo-liberal agenda in higher education.
The planned strike is not just an opportunity to claw back lost ground over wages and conditions, it is also a chance to defend education against marketisation.
So this strike is to be welcomed and activists must throw everything into ensuring its success. However, it is essential that this dispute is placed into a wider political context if it is to realise its full potential.
Unfortunately, UCU’s response to management intransigence has so far been a narrow economic one.
Because of the introduction of student fees and other funding changes in higher education, there is more money in the system than for very many years – £3.4 billion between now and 2008, a 25 percent increase.
But the money comes with strings attached. The introduction of student fees is part of the marketisation of education.
In order to get their fees proposal through parliament, government ministers argued that at least a part of the income generated would be used to address the long decline in academic salaries.
Thirty years ago academic salaries were comparable to those of doctors or judges. Now they don’t even compare well with teachers’ salaries.
The process through which academics have been pushed into the wider working class has led to resistance.
This included a successful strike at the beginning of 2004 in defence of national negotiating rights and against local bargaining.
The first steps in taking the universities into the brave new world of business involved massively increasing pay differentials.
This created a layer of top managers who have a stake in the marketisation of education. Vice-chancellors recently gave themselves a 25 percent increase in salaries.
An examination of university accounts for the past year indicates that it is not just vice?chancellors who have enjoyed huge pay hikes. They have also created a layer of highly paid cronies around them.
The next steps are a drive to cut staff wages as a whole, to further increase differentials, to casualise and privatise university teaching, to replace national pay bargaining with local or even individual pay deals.
Increases in student fees and differential fees are also on the cards, with a serious attempt to create an “ivy league” of privileged institutions, charging enormous student fees, already in hand.
Those institutions left behind in the race will find themselves confined to vocational training.
University staff and students will be the victims of this. UCU has to face up to the fact that it must battle on all these fronts.
University workers are spoiling for a fight. The strike day will be impressive and victory is a real possibility, but we need to widen our focus to ensure success.
UCU activists need to ensure student support for every picket line, every demonstration, every rally. To do this UCU must demand an end to student fees.
Currently this is union policy but it is nowhere to be seen in the material being put out in support of our pay campaign.
Malcolm Povey is a member of the AUT at Leeds University