Support – 76%, Oppose – 24%
Jack Campbell – Support
Mamma Mia, here we go again.
Like you, I too am frustrated that lecturers are set to strike once more. More learning time lost; tuition money down the drain. But think for a minute — what’s the deal here? Lecturers are contracted some, say, 37.5 hours per week. Do you honestly think that’s all the hours they work? No! They spend a great deal of time deciphering your caffeine-fuelled hieroglyphic chicken scrawl in-class tests and your criminally pleonastic hand-in essays. On top of that, office hours, responding to emails, uhhhh… lecturing, and so on.
I emailed a lecturer at 3pm on Sunday, and received a response before the next couple had been eliminated from “Strictly Come Dancing” that same evening! These are the hours that they commit to our betterment. Yet this is not the main issue, nor even the main issue surrounding working conditions.
On working conditions, that would be the “casualisation” of working hours, as a member of staff put it to me. Universities across the UK are relying less and less upon the permanent fixed contracts which give lecturers job security. Whilst this is not as big an issue at St Andrews, it nonetheless exists as a problem here. Thus, staff members are putting in all of these extra hours on top of their contract not knowing if their future actually lies here. You may argue that lecturers sign up knowing the extra time commitment. I wouldn’t agree, but sure.
What you cannot argue, however, is that a growing academic gig economy is good for anyone. But as I said, this is not even the main issue. The main issue, the one which received the most support in the UCU ballot, was pensions.
For those who oppose the strikes, I ask: if you were to make a net loss of £240,000 on your pension under a new proposal, wouldn’t you kick up a fuss? Because that is the issue. Changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme will see the average staff member pay an additional £40,000 into their pension, and yet receive almost £200,000 less upon retirement.
“It is not,” Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest.” We are all, for the most self-regarding materialists. From that perspective, how can you dare challenge the right of our lecturers to strike when so much is at stake?
In diagnosing why you may disagree, I come to the commoditisation of higher education. This has turned students into paying customers who demand a service worth the sometimes tens of thousands they pay for it. Surely as customers, you could argue, we should be getting the full eleven weeks of teaching that we pay for. Well, here’s another idea: request a refund! The week lost to strike action means that a student from the rest of the UK would be entitled to £420.45 in lost teaching time.
Or better: see the lecturers not as antagonists but as another group affected by these registered charities high on capitalism. On that, however, you should not expect to see an email of solidarity from the higher-ups at the University. I encourage you to read the University’s financial statements for the year ending 31 July 2018. They show the total salary of a certain staff member (whose name rhymes with Rally Lap Thrown…) increasing 8.8% from 2017 to 2018 (far above the inflation rate over the same period), to a total of £272,000. This includes what one can only imagine is a cushty flat on The Scores, which is “provided to her by the University on a representative basis,” ie rent-free! The number of staff members receiving more than £100,000 has also increased over the period, from 36 to 41. Now, I know the University’s hands are mostly tied when it comes to lecturer pay, but to have such a great increase in pay for some while the majority of staff are seeing their financial compensation gutted does seem at best a touch unfair. But lest this article get me thrown out, I shall stop at the facts, and leave my own views aside.
Who knows? Maybe I am wrong on this one. As a Scottish student, I see education as a public good, not a commodity. I am not, after all, paying what some of you are. But remember this: you aren’t paying it to the lecturer. It is in the University’s deep pockets that the money lines. From that point, it is theirs to disburse as they see fit. and can we truly say that lecturers are fairly compensated for their toil? I’m not sure.
If you are undecided — or even against the strikes — but acknowledge that our staff go above and beyond for each and every one of us, I leave you with a parting remark: get off the fence and onto the picket! I am firmly behind our teachers, and you should be, too. Of the lecturers I have consulted, one has decided to strike, two have not. Let’s remember that for those who strike, the decision mustn’t be an easy one. Promotion opportunities are surely not awarded to dissenters!
Oppose – Matt Leighton
I have a lot of sympathy for my lecturers wanting more money. I like money. Regardless of whether they wish to spend it or to sleep on top of it like Smaug, I certainly don’t blame them for wanting more money in their pension pots. I do sometimes envision retiring to a little house in Crail, where I would take up fishing and stamp collecting. I’m sure a bigger pension would pay for a better rod and nicer stamps, and I’m sure my lecturers would like nice stamps just as much as me.
However, as much as we may all long for an 1840 un-gummed Penny Black, this doesn’t mean we should support the strike action. Whatever angry, hammer-and-sickle flag-waving Americans may tell you, you are not a scab for not wanting your lectures to go ahead. In fact, opposing the strikes is evidently the big-brain option. Let me tell you why.
First of all, the University and College Union have made some shocking claims about staff pay. For example, they claim as one major motivator for the strike that wages of university staff have fallen by almost 20% since 2009. This, on the face of it, seems unforgivable, as in effectively means that every member of staff at St Andrews has been paying £6 for a Pablo for over ten years. However, it’s clear that some very creative accounting has gone on. Most notably, they have chosen to use a method of calculating inflation which produces a much higher result than the standard measurement. Of course, these figures being misleading should be of no surprise to anyone. It’s like getting statistics about Christmas from the National Union of Turkeys.
These dodgy figures also apply to the claim that universities are unfairly cutting pensions. In all fairness to the UCU, the reductions in pension payments and increase in contributions does seem pretty gutting at first glance. The revised value of lecturer pensions would certainly purchase a much flimsier fishing rod than the veritable harpoon that could be afforded by the previous sum. However, there is a simple explanation for this, in that the people running the pension fund don’t want the whole scheme to collapse, and don’t think they can afford their original promise.
I’m sure that First Actuarial Ltd. could come out tomorrow and promise all of our University staff that their larders will be stocked with lobster until their deaths. However, when the pension scheme goes bankrupt, no-one gets any money. Surely it’s better to heat the pool only during summer and eat smoked salmon only five times a week than to have nothing at all.
But let’s say I’m wrong about the strike. Let’s imagine that our lecturers are barely scraping enough of a living to send one measly postcard to their babushka each month, with a second-class stamp at that. That still would not mean that the strike itself is either effective or worthy of the support of the student body.
The purpose of a strike is for workers to stop doing useful work in order to inflict financial harm on their employer. The reason that this strike doesn’t work is that it does not harm the University in any way. The University’s business model is that it provides a service, namely education, in return for a rather substantial sum of money.
If each lecture and tutorial operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, with students shoving a tenner into a box for every hour of Finnish Marxist historiography of neo-classical France they received, then a strike would be really effective. The University would be losing money every day, and like you and I, the University likes money. It may want to spend the money on replacements for Albany Park and funding “Meme Bops” instead of fishing and stamps, but that’s beside the point.
Compare the position of a factory owner under strike action to the position of our University. The factory owner realises that if no-one is making fishing rods, she can’t make any money. If the factory owner doesn’t make any money, she can’t afford that cottage in Crail. If she can’t afford the cottage in Crail, she’ll have nowhere to store her stamps. In essence, it puts the factory owner in an intolerable situation and she is forced to negotiate.
The University on the other hand sees on one side of the road eight people stood outside St Salvator’s Quad in the freezing cold, chanting songs which would make any nursery kid blush. On the other side of the road, they see hundreds of students tucked up in bed, cosy in the knowledge that the purpose of university is to be issued a piece of paper authorising you to have a job in upper management. Therefore, the University, if it could, would wipe away its tears with a wad of fifties, and go back to bed, instead of throwing a bone to their staff.
If students really want to make sure their lecturers get better conditions, it’s clear that going on strike doesn’t do very much. If activists want to make a real difference, they should demand our money back instead. Money would also motivate all students of St Andrews to support our lecturers. After all, while we might not all necessarily cares about pension schemes and inflation rates, at heart everyone does want a better stamp collection.