Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Solidarity for academia


You may not have noticed, but the UK academics’ union (UCU) is on strike today, together with the higher-education employees of Unite and Unison, representing clerical, technical, and support staff. Having come to Oxford from Queen’s University (Ontario), which is a closed shop, where the union flexes its muscles on behalf of academic employees, I was surprised by the weakness of the academic unions here. UCU seems to make no effort to inform new academic employees that it even exists. The only news I ever heard about UCU during my early years in the UK were the efforts of a vocal minority to hijack the union for anti-Israel boycotts.

But I decided I should make an effort and actually sign up for the union. It’s pretty clear that the panjandrums of higher education in the UK are fundamentally managerialist in their outlook, and are happy to take advantage of academics’ hauteur to break our solidarity. We think we’re important professionals, not like those maintenance employees and secretaries and such for whom unionisation may be appropriate, but from the perspective of the VCs we’re all just a bunch of proles.

Many seem to think that the special values of academia are incompatible with unionisation. I’d say exactly the opposite: To the extent that we hold to peculiarly academic values, we are not going to preserve them in any form against the corporatisation drive of UK university administration and government through persuasion. It is going to be a power struggle, and only a strong union will give us any chance of asserting our vision. They’ll be happy for us to bring a well-honed argument to an education-policy gunfight.

A spokesman for the UCEA (University and College Employers’ Association) dissed the union last week, saying

It is for trade unions to predict their support but given that less than 5 per cent of staff chose to vote in favour of strike action, our higher education institutions anticipate low-level impact on students.

In other words, you won’t be missed.

When I ask colleagues how they feel about the union and going on strike (and following the strike, the union’s decision to “work to contract”), they tend to respond with some variant of “It would only hurt the students.” Of course, that’s the kind of scruple that the employers never have. I’ve never heard of a vice chancellor saying, “We could worsen conditions/ cut pay/ replace permanent by temporary lecturers, but it would only hurt the students.”

For academics, our salaries are not just our salaries. Many of the advantages that reconcile us to the low salaries in academia, relative to other sectors where people with our skills and education might work, depend on maintaining our departments’ research environment, which requires that the salaries be at least comparable to international standards.

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