The Let Them Eat Cake University Bash


THERE is revolution stirring in the hallowed halls of our universities and colleges… an unrest not witnessed in the UK since the heady days of student sit-ins of the late 1960s.

But it is not the students who are fermenting 21st century strife, but their older and wiser lecturers and professors.

Amid pay freezes, zero hours contracts, spiralling staff absences due to stress, revised academic calendars and resource cut-backs, while vice chancellors earn more than twice that of the prime minister, academic staff have had enough.

This week’s two day strike of University and College Union (UCU) members highlighted the chasm between vice chancellors earning an average £274,405 per annum while lecturing staff have suffered a 14.5% cut in pay in real terms.

UCU branded the disparity a ‘disgrace’.

Along with strike action and working to contract, union members are now withdrawing their services across all aspects of the curriculum.

And that is only the tip of a row, which threatens to even overshadow the junior doctors’ acrimonious dispute with health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The University and College Union is highlighting a new trend where some universities are now going down the Austerity road of zero hours contracts.

They body-swerving their statutory of pay and conditions by sub-contracting out recruitment to commercial agencies such as Kaplan and INTO.

The powerful Russell Group of Universities has already advertised, via INTO, for new lecturers at Manchester University through this method.

One national recruitment advert taken out on 23 May details the move:

Teacher of English (Zero Hours Contract)  

INTO Manchester are looking to recruit, as soon as possible, a zero hours hourly-paid English Language teacher to join the organisation and to help us cover by teaching on English Language programmes at various times as and when required throughout the summer of 2016.

The job entails: “To teach English to international students on a variety of programmes. This is likely to include full-time General English and Academic English courses, but may also include Foundation, Undergraduate Diploma and Graduate Diploma programmes.”

The duties of this position are identical to that of many full time senior lecturers at other universities who have the security of permanent full time contracts.

But in addition to teaching duties, the successful zero hours candidate must:

  • Work with key stakeholders across other functional areas of INTO such as marketing, finance, student services.
  • Prepare, select and use teaching-learning materials for international students
  • Provide oral and written feedback to students and other stakeholders
  • Provide pastoral and academic support for international students as appropriate through the personal tutorial system.
  • Carry out administrative and record-keeping tasks such as: student progress reports, test invigilation, marks sheets, attendance and activity records, tutorial logs, advising logs, and UCAS references
  • Participate in the social programme such as accompanying trips and attending events
  • Attend regular staff and student representative meetings.
  • Set and mark coursework, liaising with the Examinations Board as necessary and keeping reliable records of scores achieved

The 24 universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) which make up the Russell Group produce more than two-thirds of the leading research produced in UK universities, support over 300,000 jobs across the country and have a total economic output of more than £32 billion every year.

Last year, more than 395,000 undergraduates and over 184,000 postgraduates were studying at a Russell Group university.

One senior lecturer at Sussex University, which is not part of the Russell Group, said: “This recruitment policy is bizarre beyond belief.

“While most university lecturers struggle daily to fulfil the increasing demands of the job with dwindling resources, it seems that Manchester University’s answer is to fill its needs with off-the-shelf temporary staff, who will not know from one semester to another whether they have any work.

“Suddenly universities are adopting the practices of Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.”

UCU’s own research has found that 61% of Further Education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland already have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts along with 53% of UK universities.

“Our findings have shone a light on the murky world of casualisation in further and higher education,” said a UCU spokesman.

“We have a real crisis with Further Education which seems to mirror what is happening in the commercial world outside”.

UCU members began working to contract from this week, which means they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work, or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues.

They will also withdraw their skills and services as external examiners.

On Friday, 50 professors from academic institutions as diverse as Durham University, Cardiff, Southampton, Sheffield and Warwick signed an open letter explaining why they are resigning their roles as external examiners.

Their letter says:

“We have resigned because, while as senior academics we believe our role in underpinning the quality of education provided to students is vital, we are all too aware of the unfairness of the current pay policies of our universities and their impact on staff and their students.

“We have watched with sadness the pay of academic and professional staff fall in real terms by 14.5% since 2009; we have seen the numbers of casual staff proliferate; and seen universities do little or nothing to reduce the shocking gender pay gap despite having a collective surplus of £1.85 billion.

“Yet the final straw for many of us is the contention by our employers that the latest final pay offer of 1.1% is “at the limits of what can be afforded” when at the same time we discover that university leaders have themselves received an average pay increase of 6.1%. The blatant hypocrisy of this position is breath-taking.

“We have therefore resigned from our external examiner posts and there will be no “business as usual” until we have a commitment from our universities to fair pay in higher education.”

But already it is far from “business as usual”.

At the University of Wolverhampton they are now witnessing “disturbing levels of sickness among staff,” as stress takes its toll on under-resourced and under-paid lecturers.

The local chapel of UCU sent a letter to its members which highlighted the problem: “The figures of days lost through sickness absence amongst staff in 2014/15 are once again, damning.

“20,306 days have been lost in 2014/15, which is worse than the previous year (19,140 but with fewer employees).

“The breakdown of the nature of the illness will be of interest to members, as 25% of sickness absence is psychological, which is eight percentage points more than the average in the sector.

“HR have acknowledged that at least half of this category is work-related stress.”

“Yet the university has responded by closing its counselling services for staff.

“Your UCU reps are puzzled that access for staff to the University Counselling Service has now been withdrawn after nearly five years.

This is despite significant numbers of staff using the service and despite extremely high levels of satisfaction being reported by the 84% who completed a survey at the end of their period of counselling.

“Without the University provision, most of the staff concerned would have had to wait more than three months to access counselling via the NHS.

“University management have said that the institution needs to make cost savings and should not be taking on the role of the health service.

“However, a number of other universities in the West Midlands (Coventry, Keele and Birmingham) provide free counselling for staff.

“Members have speculated that maybe access for staff to the University Counselling Service has made the amount of human unhappiness in the institution much more visible and University management would prefer that it was hidden and not talked about.”

But university staff have hidden for too long.

One senior lecturer and governor at Wolverhampton notes the “Us and Them” philosophy which alienates the university bosses from their staff.

On Wednesday, he posted an anonymous attack on his employers via his online blog: “Today sees the first Staff Summer Party. There are rides and ice-cream stalls and a bucking bronco because that’s what academics really want to do apparently. Truth be told, a summer tea party after a long year is rather a nice idea, but this one falls on the eve of our strike.

“I’ve suggested that the party be renamed the Let Them Eat Cake Bash, but apparently that’s not helpful.

“I wouldn’t mind, but that very day the Times Higher Education Supplement published a report which singled out our Vice Chancellor for his 19.6% pay rise: a very handy £44,000 which should see him through the summer.

“The chair of the governors said the rise is due to the VC’s excellent performance, while forgetting to mention that the VC’s salary is being increased to the median for the sector as a matter of policy.

“Yet academic staff are not rewarded for ‘results’: we’re assessed and appraised and criticised, but not rewarded.

“Only senior executives – some of whom are demonstrably ignorant of what goes on in classrooms – are afforded bonus payments and a salary scheme which depends on an all-universities pay survey.

“What this essentially means is that the senior managements of all universities are on a one-way conveyor belt of pay uplifts. If senior pay is benchmarked to a sector average, all they have to do is tell each other that this year, they’ve deserved an increase.

“Hey presto, they all get one! As we say round here, credit and money rise to the top.

“Only blame trickles downwards.

“If it wasn’t for the sight of people on 20% pay rises sending out threatening emails telling us we’re greedy I wouldn’t mind so much about the salary.

“What I do object to is the complete absence of analytical rigour. Universities’ monies are loans from students, to be paid off (over decades).

“I want to see a Vice Chancellor or a Head of Finance of a university stand in front of a student and explain why he or she deserves to soak up the £9,000 fees of 30 students while they’re being taught often by insecurely-employed, part-time teachers who are expected to produce world-class research, generate external funding and top-class National Student Survey reports while often being employed on zero-hours contracts.”

This particular lecturer spent Wednesday and Thursday on his university picket line giving out peanuts to his colleagues while offering Whiskas treats to the “fat cat” bosses as they drove past in their Mercedes and Jaguars.

The university bosses have upped the ante.

But, UCU will not be brow-beaten into submission.

UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said: “If no agreement is reached in the coming weeks, members have agreed to further strike action which could affect open days, graduation ceremonies and the clearing process.

“Universities need to answer some hard questions about how they will continue to attract and retain the best talent when pay is being held down and hardworking staff are receiving such poor reward for their efforts.”