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University employers’ strategy: play for time 17 May, 2006

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Today’s emergency session of the Commons Education and Skills Committee (you can see it here) left MPs, unions and observers baffled by the university employers’ persistent reliance on time-wasting and spurious figures rather than actively seeking a resolution to the universities’ pay dispute.

There were two clues that UCEA (the Universities’ and Colleges Employers’ Association) is content to sit back and do nothing. In his answers to MPs’ questions, UCEA chief Dr Geoffrey Copland (above) said the extent to which students would be unable to take exams had been exaggerated and only a “very small number” would be affected. UCEA has been happy to let the media report otherwise, in the hope that it will pressurise NATFHE and AUT members to discontinue their industrial action, and Dr Copland’s remarks suggest this may be a deliberate strategy which they plan to stick to.

The second clue came in a leaked UCEA notice calling for an employers’ meeting this Friday 19 May. The notice makes no mention of any fresh initiative to seek a settlement of the dispute but simply hopes that student, public and government opinion will put pressure on lecturers “which may change the climate greatly”.

UCEA even managed to upset the chairman of the MPs committee, by issuing a false press statement claiming that Barry Sheerman MP had called on the AUT and NATFHE representatives to put the employers’ 12.6 per cent “final offer” to their members for a ballot.

According to the BBC:

‘Committee chair Barry Sheerman said this was “absolutely the opposite of the truth”, adding: “I’m hopping mad.”

The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) issued a statement to news media after the committee hearing, quoting its chair, Dr Geoffrey Copland – who had given evidence.

“We are delighted that members of the education and skills committee this morning added their voice to the growing demand for the AUT and Natfhe to put this 12.6% pay offer to a ballot.”

Mr Sheerman said: “It’s the opposite of the truth and this is a real breach of trust. I don’t see how anyone can trust an organisation that would do that.”

We must expose the employers’ bad faith. As the frustration and anxiety of thousands of students and their families in the UK and around the world turns to anger, and as growing numbers of union members face threats and intimidation from their employers, the employers’ cynicism cannot go unpunished.


Getting the word out 14 May, 2006

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It’s critical that those involved in the dispute pool resources, information and ideas if we are going to beat the concerted attack on our legitimate claim by the employers. It’s also important that we get the word out. Prominent political blog Lenin’s Tomb invited me to write a post on the dispute, which you can read here.

Fighting the lockout 13 May, 2006

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So now we know what we are up against. Despite doing everything over the two months of the dispute so far to minimise disruption to students (by marking, giving feedback and often marks back to students but withholding them from the university), and performing the other 95% of our jobs normally, the BU vice chancellor has threatened us with the withholding of 100% of our pay if we don’t submit marks at least 14 days before the relevant exam board. This amounts to suspension without pay: a lockout.

Of course using this sledgehammer approach – in a national dispute where the outcome will be decided by every university in the country – has immediately backfired. Student opinion, which was probably drifting against us until the VC issued his threat on Wednesday, is now much more sympathetic as the employers’ role as aggressor, and obstacle to a settlement, is revealed. And of course it has stiffened our resolve, even though the threat has also made people feel intimidated and anxious about the consequences once pay starts being cut in a couple of weeks’ time.

I am reminded of the words of Peter Knight, vice chancellor of UCE Birmingham (28% pay increase over past three years), back on 7 March: “If pay is stopped, the action will collapse. “While there is proper and understandable loyalty to the unions from their members, there is a limit to that loyalty and it will get severely tested at pay day.”

We shall see.

Focus on fatcat VC pay prompts expected response 9 March, 2006

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VC salaries of up to £200,000, exposed by a Times Higher survey, have led to union calls for greater public scrutiny of top management pay awards following VC pay increases of over 25 per cent since 2003.

And guess what the fatcats’ response was? “‘Vice-chancellors do a demanding job as chief executives of complex, multi-million pound organisations. Their remuneration packages reflect what it takes to attract, retain and reward individuals of sufficient calibre, experience and talent in a growing sector. UK HE institutions are now operating in an increasingly competitive global market and as such, candidates require the necessary experience and talent to meet this challenge. Education and training exports are worth £10.2 billion to the UK economy. International higher education is a major export industry that could be worth £20 billion to the UK economy by 2020.'”

The THES editorial said: ‘Until the leaders of higher education show the same restraint they are demanding from the unions, disputes like the current one are bound to be well supported.’

THES survey of vice chancellors’ pay 2004-5

Rhetoric 7 March, 2006

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Another day, another round of mischief from the employers. Just days after the SU at Bournemouth reiterated its support for our action, the university emailed students and staff with their own, eccentric version of events.

“You are urged to follow the advice of the Students’ Union and attend the University as usual tomorrow,” the university advised – the same SU which last week said: “The NUS is backing the strikers and is going further by suggesting that they are allowed an increase to the tune of 30%….This Student Union backs the strikers in the short term and hopes that they are paid what they are entitled to receive.”

Just three minutes after the email to students, the university fired another message round to staff in deliberately inflammatory and divisive terms: “Natfhe are entitled under the law to have peaceful picket lines operating to demonstrate in support of their action. All staff, students and visitors are equally entitled to enter the University as usual and to go about their normal business and this email is to reassure you about any concerns that you may have on this point.”

It would be laughable were it not so malicious. However much those of us taking action see ourselves as some kind of revolutionary vanguard, the implication of this email, that today’s picket-lines might be a re-enactment of Orgreave in 1984 were it not for the stern resolve of the university’s director of human resources, hardly reflects the Thermos-and-cold-feet banality that will greet those turning up today.

Don’t expect an early result 7 March, 2006

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As NATFHE and AUT members begin their industrial action, it is clear that a well-organised propaganda campaign by the employers may leave campaigners for fair pay isolated from public – and student – support. Today’s Guardian is critical of our action and highly selective in its reporting, choosing to quote the breakaway Student Union at Bristol rather than the rest, like at our own at Bournemouth, which have declared support for the lecturers’ campaign.

The Guardian also hands over a lengthy opinion piece to the employers, which makes their strategy explicit.

“If pay is stopped, the action will collapse,” says Dr Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of UCE Birmingham. “While there is proper and understandable loyalty to the unions from their members, there is a limit to that loyalty and it will get severely tested at pay day.”

What Knight fails to understand is the depth of feeling this campaign reflects, and the fact that many of us – those for whom the chronically low salaries represent the main or sole income – feel we have nothing to lose. Our unions have made it clear that failure to restore docking of pay due to industrial action will merely prolong that action, and while there will be those whose resolve may not withstand such a test, docking of pay is also likely to harden attitudes among the remainder.

Over 120 MPs back our claim 6 March, 2006

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Apparently, over 120 MPs, including members of the Commons Education Select Committee, have signed a motion backing the NATFHE/AUT campaign for decent pay.

Contact your MP and ask him or her to join them.

BBC swallows employers’ spin on pay 6 March, 2006

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The BBC has dutifully reported comments by the employers ahead of Tuesday’s one-day strike, including inaccurate government data on lecturers’ salaries. The figures are cited in an employers’ press briefing handed out on Friday which does not appear on their website.

According to the employers’ spin document, lecturers earned an average of £40,657 in 2004-5. Had they checked however, the BBC would have discovered that the salary range of lecturers in post-92 universities was much lower – from £24,352 to £37,513.