Interview with a striking lecturer

I interviewed Bruce, a lecturer in Economics at Trent University to get a better idea of what the dispute was about. I think it’s fair to say that Bruce’s views are closer to  social democracy than our own, none the less we think it gives valuable insight both to what is happening at the university and across the sector.

The views expresses are the interviewees own, rather than the view of the anarchist federation. The interview was conducted in order to try and get an idea of the situation at hand.

What is this dispute about officially? And what else are strikers angry about?

Officially it’s about pensions and it’s about pay and it’s about fear of redundancy. In terms of pensions, there’s proposals being mooted presently to increase employee contributions, which would effectively mean a lecturer would be in excess of a £100 a month worse off. You think about that and it’s a pay cut effectively. That’s a real big dent in family incomes. The pay proposal that’s been put to us is 0.4% with inflation running at 4%. This is on the back of a year in which we had a public sector pay freeze. So in real terms standards of living are falling quite severely. The other thing is the fear of redundancies across the sector because of public sector funding cuts. And these cuts to the higher education sector they’re manifesting and impacting on students as well in a real bad way. We’ve got potentially fees coming in. So overall there’s these very specific problems facing us as employees, but also there’s a sector wide problem which emanates from the present governments policy, which is anti public sector

What’s the mood amongst lecturers at the moment both in regards to the strike and general workplace morale?

I would say locally my colleagues are motivated and enjoy the work and there’s a tremendous sense of public service. So I think that’s being undermined. In terms of the mood there’s a sense that we’re not being valued for what we do. In terms of attitudes to the strike to some extent there is partially a malaise across the workplace in this country I think and people need to get angry. They need to realise that their conditions which are affecting them are not something that is set in stone; they’re something being imposed by a government that is pro big business and anti the common man and woman. So I think colleagues feel quite depressed about the circumstances. They are well intentioned public spirited people, who are being undervalued. I think this is an important moment; it’s the first national strike since the election of the current coalition, so I think it’s a tremendously important. It maybe the seed that flourishes into a concerted opposition, this attack on the public services of this country.

What action would you like to see ideally?

I think the action has to be targeted. In our particular sector the action has to be targeted so that it impacts times of year, for example student induction week. We need to start hitting the employers hard, where it hurts rather than one day strikes in for example the summer term where the only effect would be to lose a days pay. So I think we need something more pressing. Personally I’d like to see a longer strike at the start of the next academic year when students are arriving. More generally I think the public sector needs to get angry. Whilst I’m suggesting being more targeted in the terms of higher education sector, I would say the public sector more generally needs concerted action to protect its very existence. I have no doubt that the Conservatives would like to do to public services what they did to nationalised industries in the 1980s and that’s something we need to fight. People work in areas like health and education because they’re motivated with a sense and duty and public spirit. If you take that away you’re left with an economy that’s mean spirited, which is driven by self seeking egoistic fulfilment. I think we need to have targeted action across the public sector.

What’s management’s reaction been to the strike, if any?

We’ve had emails from the HR department which I think have been fairly bizarre. Spreading misinformation basically. But I think at a local level, some of my colleagues with whom I work who have some management function, I think deep down they know that they have a shared interest with other employees in this sector. Maybe more senior managers who see themselves as some kind of entrepreneurial agents within our sector, I think they’re more problematic. But I think that at a more local level I think some managers have some degree of sympathy with what the strike is trying to achieve.

Have you had any reaction from students?

I’ve not heard any negative reactions from students. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve cancelled classes today and I told the students in advance if the strike went ahead I’m a UCU member and I would be going out on strike. They were inquisitive about it and I think there was a measure of sympathy. I think many students see this as another example or situation that resonates with their own; the attempt by governments at the moment to cut the support they give to students and introduce incredibly high fees. It used to be higher education was something that was free. Now we have a situation where middle and working class kids go to university and are starting to have to pay large amounts of money. I think students I’ve talked to are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the plight of academics and they see it as a part of a problem that’s permeating across higher education

Has there been any attempt to involve support staff?

The support staff didn’t vote to go on strike because there was a decision by their unions not to go to ballot. I don’t have a problem with that. Again it’s about being strategic in the higher education sector, how do you make universities grind to a halt? You pull the academics out; you don’t need to pull support staff out on national minimum wage out. You can completely stop the function of the university by pulling out teachers out strategically. Me? I’m on good money compared with support staff so I have no qualms about them working and I see it as a strategic thing. Academics are the thing that can completely hamstring universities.

Has there been action short of a strike?

I voted to do work short of a strike as well, but that’s only because no one has the stomach to go all out. That’s what I’d do. Action short of a strike has not been planned yet but the strategy that the unions tend to adopt is they begin with a one day strike and then subsequently they roll out action short of a strike. If you like the one day strike is a signal of intent, which then helps consolidate unity when it comes to action short of a strike. That’s my impression. The example when there was a local dispute at Nottingham Trent University, the example was grey listing. They tried to remove facilities time for union officers; we had a one day strike following the threat of grey listing. And I think senior management at the university they did actually back down on that particular issue, so that was highly effective. I think you needed the one day strike just as an aperitif to the main meal.

What do you see as the future of university education?

I think in universities in the last 20 years there’s been a move away from education in and for itself, towards education that is instrumental or functional for the needs of business/industry. I think there’s been a lot of pressure with that and moves to introduce markets into education. Things like fees are indicative of that. So where universities used to be socially liberal inquisitive places, I think the attacks from this present government are actually an attempt to reinforce this business orientation of universities. So universities aren’t places of critical reflection, of learning, of self development. That’ll go out the window to be replaced with training centres. I think that’ll be very bad for us as a community.


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2 responses to “Interview with a striking lecturer

  1. This may not be so much the case at Nottingham Trent but at Nottingham University there are also hundreds of research-only staff – actually many times more that ‘academic’ staff in some faculties like Science or Engineering, who are mostly non-unionised and most on insecure fixed term contracts tied to specific grants that come and go. Their pensions are disproportionally affected due to greater likelihood of gaps in services. The UCU has been quite slow to work out what these workers can do practically in disputes even when it recognises the scale of casualisation , although at least the name change from AUT/NATFHE (both with teacher emphasis) to University and College Union is more inclusive. As well as potential for research staff to get involved, I don’t agree that only academics can really affect the business of a university. What would happen if all of the IT staff were on strike and none of the computer systems worked? What about the libraries closing? All of these roles could be in the UCU, and some are, but most people who could be are not it seems. Alternatively it would be a lot stronger if Unison and Unite balloted for strike action or action short of a strike as well. The students have really shown the way in terms of solidarity. It is disheartening to hear (in previous article) that so many staff did not turn up to picket lines and so many crossed them. That CWU members in Royal Mail and Parcel Force vans chose to cross official picket lines is particularly sad but hopefully a more solid approach can be acheived in the future.

  2. deadrussian

    thanks for the info. 100% agree on the need for all staff to be made to recognise that their interests are intrinsically linked and indeed show’s that the sectionalality of trade unionism is a barrier that needs to be crossed.

    i will make the qualifier above the post more explicit. the interview was conducted in the spirit of enquiry as to the to the conditions on the ground at trent university than any ideological endorsement of the views expressed.

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