March 07, 2006

Lecturers' Strike

I am in two minds about this strike. It is true that in real terms, lecturers' workloads have massively increased (I am informed that the number of students per staff member has more than doubled), and their pay has gone down over the past couple of decades or so, both in real terms and compared to pay for other highly-trained professionals. However, the unions are concentrating on the increase in pay, not the massive workloads.

I do firmly believe that

  • £36K as a average wage (though surely the median wage is nearer to £30K ?!) is not an ungenerous wage compared to the average full-time salary of UK workers in general. In all but the most expensive areas, it is enough to get a mortgage with, and still have enough to pay the bills each month.
  • Compared to other professionals, the academic salaries are very poor.

Academics are the professionals who are supposed to be the permanent research wing of the country's finest brains (as opposed to industry research which can fluctuate in size), and who are charged with educating young minds to high standards. How can the country possibly consider those people not valuable? Does it not want to have young people educated properly? Does it want to stagnate technologically? Is it not interested in new developments (e.g. protecting the human race from global warming/bird flu/cancer)? Why fund the expansion of higher education with ever increasing numbers of young people to teach, if you don't want them to be taught by the best minds in the country? Do they want academics to leave academia for industry, or abroad?

I fear that this will all become a lot more obvious in a few years time, when graduates saddled with large debts will only go into academia (more low-paid training, lower salaries in the end) if they really can't bear the thought of doing anything else. We are already seeing very low numbers of British students in doctoral studies (in many fields they are vastly outnumbered by overseas students), and within a few years British academics will be even rarer. UCEA is misguided when it says "whilst there are a small number of subject areas where recruitment can be difficult, universities do not face widespread problems in attracting and retaining academic staff, so pay cannot be that uncompetitive" - this problem will increase in the future.

Anyway that's why I'm in favour of higher pay in theory. In principle.

In practice, I have enough money to live on. I don't need more. What I need is my workload reduced. Expectations and pressures need to be lower. And the problem is, if the unions win higher pay, that is only going to reduce the capacity of universities to cut workloads. They may reduce staff; they certainly won't increase numbers. All of which means my workload will go up. How am I supposed to cope? I really don't know. And I'm one of the lucky ones.


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