This Halloween, staff from the University and Colleges Union (UCU,) Unite and Unison took industrial action against higher education campuses across the country. The strike came as part of an ongoing dispute with University management that arose following a pay cut of 13 per cent since 2008, at a time when the increase in privatisation of higher education means that university leaders and management are receiving pay increases of, on average, more than £5,000 and average pensions packages for vice chancellors coming in at around £250,000.
The point here is not that Cameron’s agenda of austerity is “necessary” or, “crucial to clearing up the mess Labour left us in,” as he likes to re-iterate; it is a dangerous agenda derived from a poisonous ideological base. The neo-liberal approach to education results in the inexorable shift toward a private model – one that resembles the American system. This was demonstrated both in the tripling of tuition fees but also in Oxford vice chancellor Andrew Hamilton’s recent comments that top universities should not be constrained by the £9,000 fees but should be allowed to charge whatever they like to reflect the standard of their institution.
Cuts to staff pay, which come at a time when university revenue is increasing steadily through tuition fees and a recovery in student numbers since 2012, are simply not sustainable if university managements wants to provide students with a world class education. Connected to this is the increased focus on research led academia, which is profitable, especially in science and technology fields, but puts students on the back burner, casting us as cash cows rather than pupils with a passion for learning.
Despite a conflicted campus wide email that simultaneously encouraged those with concerns about the consequences of the strike to voice them while ominously warning that students who did not attend classes would be “marked absent as usual”, students should continue to resolutely stand in solidarity with staff while this dispute rumbles on. The real threat to the quality and integrity of higher education comes from the threat of privatisation. If we do not acknowledge and resist this malevolent force which serves as the basis for the strike action, we are jeopardising not only our own education, but the future of higher education itself. This strike is the first time, according to UCU head of HE Michael Macneil, that all three major unions have taken coordinated industrial action against management. If the momentum surrounding the action is maintained, then it has the potential to increase resistance to austerity. The student movement encapsulates many other battles, such as the struggle against welfare cuts.
We cannot fight one without remembering that all these battles are linked. Education is a right, not a privilege and staff welfare is a key facet of a healthy life at university that must be defended.