Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite!

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Yesterday morning was not an usual morning for me. Usually, I feel excited to meet the new day and grateful that I can feel that excitement.

Yesterday I felt anxious.

I have never crossed a picket line in my whole working life!

Over the last thirty years I’ve had my revolution(s) and I’ve been on many picket lines. Yesterday I had to cross one because I’d decided to do my classes.

It was a hard decision; it was made entirely because I believe that:

  • Students are not responsible for the downfall of the UK universities; we engineered this one very well ourselves.
  • Many students fit paid work around their studies; rescheduling will cause much inconvenience and disruption in their lives.
  • Many PhD researchers not only have their jobs but they also travel quite a distance; this makes it even harder to accommodate changes to schedule.

Even more importantly, though I’ve become cynical and disillusioned in British Higher Education, I truly believe that our students deserve better; that they deserve not only our competence but also the respect we give our partners in adventure.

Yes, I still see education as a wonderful adventure; every time I stand in front of a class I feel alive with anticipation. Most times I am disappointed: my attempts to light a spark are often met with vacant stares and it is hard to compete with the lure of FaceBook and Twitter.

I still try!

This is why I decided to do my classes, this is why I crossed a picket line.

Do I support the strike? You bet I do!

Yesterday’s strike was simply about pay! I know, this doesn’t sound right, does it? After all, we academics are above material things and, let’s face it, we are still earning rather well.

But here is the deal:

  • Some university employees (mainly porters, cleaners and catering staff) earn below the living wage of £7.75 (£8.80) per hour. I believe this to be the worst form of exploitation and social injustice. In my book, poverty because of unemployment is bad enough but working poverty is a disgrace that belongs to another era.
  • Universities employ people on ‘zero hours’ contracts. This employment arrangement is objectionable when other employers use it: keeping someone on a contract without guarantee of work, income or benefits is a higher form of exploitation. Universities are supposed to be a civilising force, they are supposed to stand against such demeaning practices not use them!
  • You may think that academics earn a decent wage; after all we are custodians of the future both as producing professional elites and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Then again, when you account for the exceptionally long hours we put in, a senior academic can expect to earn slightly over three times the living wage. A junior academic (a ‘Lecturer’) can expect to make roughly what I pay my cleaner, which is £12 per hour.
  • In the past four years, pay in universities has fallen in real terms by about 15%.
  • The gender pay gap persists and female professors still earn on average about 14% less than their male counterparts.
  • Generally the inequality is very high. Suffices to mention that while some university employees earn below living wage, half of the Vice Chancellors of UK universities earn over £242,000 per year.

This is why the strike was about pay; and this is why I think that taking action regarding these issues is right and, possibly, overdue.

It is an entirely different matter whether I believe that walking out is the most effective and efficient way to remedy the situation.

I have doubts! These are mainly related to the following:

  • When we walk out and go on strike, the only disadvantaged group are our students who actually have none of the blame.
  • By walking out we inconvenience our students and irritate their parents who in many cases foot the expenses around their offspring education.
  • Academics on strike is a bit like imagining a crowd of angry and aggressive Buddhists: difficult to comprehend.
  • Last but not least, we should remember that we are dealing with neo-liberal universities. I very much doubt that neo-liberal universities notice whether we go on strike and inconvenience our students – they make sure that they deduct a day’s pay from our salaries.

What neo-liberal universities care about is performance and rankings. So, Knowledge Workers of the World, let’s hit where it really hurts.

Has it occurred to you that we as academics have enormous power in the neo-liberal realities of university life. But not by walking out and putting pickets. We have power by the fact that the fruits of our labour are counted to make the university rankings.

A major component to this is counting publications and, in more refined cases, counting publications in particular journals. Attribution of these articles to particular universities is only by officially recognising the organisation (and making sure that the name is exactly right).

What will happen I wonder, if we academics agree to stop recognising our organisations on our articles?

My guess is that when British universities start sliding off the World rankings, the university leaders and the government will not only listen, they will hear.

Of course, organising this will be rather difficult – it rare that academics agree on much.

What we have to decide though is whether this fight is worth fighting. And I believe it is: for the sake of our support stuff, for the sake of our students and for our own sakes.

Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite!