Today, me and the kids clocked up some miles supporting my colleagues and comrades in HE fighting for a fair pay rise. Since 2008, HE staff have seen a cut of 13% in real terms pay – whilst those at top with the platforms and power to steer where higher education is going have been creaming in an average of nearly 250K. It’s a figure which I, a part time lecturer making less than 10K with a young family (and a newly qualified nurse partner who has been in full time HE for the past three years) find staggering – especially when you look at the huge fees being stamped onto HE which have happened under their guardianship.
At the start of this morning me, my children and my excellent friend, colleague and comrade James traveled back to Walsall to the Wolves Uni campus where we completed our PGCE. The attacks on education training provision in HE are relentless, with Gove determined to drive training into an on the job model which will see unqualified staff (ideally those with some kind of military background, presumably) launched into their teaching roles with as little expensive qualified support as possible. When I did my PGCE, I was lucky enough to have a tutor who to this day I see as an absolute role model for anyone working with young people and adults. Sparky, strong, supportive, intuitive, incredibly skilled – I couldn’t have asked for anyone better than the lecturer the system is currently beating down, and it was a privilege to be on the picket with her and her hard-working fellow staff. We in FE and those in the current school system would not and could not be there doing what we do without them.
Later, it was on to the HE rally at Birmingham Uni, where students showed inspiring solidarity in blockading entrances (first by bike, then when their fastenings were cut through a human lie down protest). Kelly Rogers, who I know through Birmingham Women’s Campaign, spoke strongly about the need to build on the strength of shared student and union struggle – a leading example of the great action – from statements of support, to occupations and blockades – students took today to support the HE strike.
The strike was historic in bringing together UCU, Unison and Unite in the pay fight, and kicks off further trench action in working to contract. It was great to see the unions working together – we are so much stronger when we do, and members from across the political spectrum are always calling for action to be like this.
I wasn’t able to leave my kids for long enough to speak at the rally this time as there had been a number of fall outs involving sandwiches and they were a bit close to the edge of a grass bank when Brian, our regional chair, was about to call me up. However what I want to say is this.
Firstly, as an FE branch secretary at a “well known” branch, we are right behind our HE colleagues in the pay battle, and as of today, our ballot is open. FE staff are used to a more streetfighting form of combat with management – me and James were shocked to see a senior manager come out with offers of bacon butties to the picket today! However, both beasts come with their own dark powers.
In FE, members have seen a real terms pay cut of 15% in the past four years, whilst again those at the top amount play with student money and accrue huge pay. For example, at my college, the stats I have looked at suggest my principal has doubled his pay from £70K to over £140K since 2003. We all know the battle lines, and weary as many downtrodden comrades are, we need to recognise the current political climate for what it is and find the strength to fight for what we can only achieve together.
On Monday I attended the Birmingham UCU hosted event on the Future of HE, and was struck by what seems to be a universal approach in senior management in the academy, epitomised by the bacon butties. At this meeting, the message from senior management was that VCs are aware of the harm of HE reform, they are aware of inter-generational injustice, but times are how they are and the liberalism of the academy (which is allegedly political neutral) must be blind to the power imbalances neo-liberalism forces into the future – academic freedom can only be preserved through listening to and acting out the policies of the democratically elected government of the time.
Now clearly this argument could at its logical extension see one serving up bacon butties to fascists if they don’t burn your books – it certainly does nothing for the values of equality I see at the heart of liberalism (however much I am not a liberal). Neo-liberalism has slashed and burnt FE to the point where my students, the majority of which are working class mums juggling jobs, kids, & home lives, are somehow viewed as needing to take out loans for fees for the privilege of getting a (sort of) level playing field with wealthy kids whose parents have given them all the cultural and material capital needed for a smooth entry into higher education. Our kids have had the EMA some of them need to even travel to colleges taken. ESOL courses for the most vulnerable are desecrated. It’s unbelievable the depths we are going to. There is no concept of FE institutions as communities combining students, staff, local people – it is all sold down the river for a failing model of education as a corporate product, and we are all suffering as a result.
Going back to today’s strike – Students and staff in HE – the real democratic communities a forward moving liberal academy should embody – are not being listened to. This was the writing all over the walls on Monday, and again today, as we get the spectrum of soft right responses of inevitable changing times which we are somehow in but not able to change, to harder right corporate bollocks implying education is not a process but a sellable commodity.
Students are not consumers – they are living learning humans to be nourished and supported in their development, not bled. Staff are not cogs, or suppliers, they are living working educators and supporters, who need to be involved, listened to and engaged in education.
As regional women’s officer, I want to raise the issue that fair pay (in FE and especially HE) – is absolutely an equality issue. It is an ongoing sociological point of analysis that in the academy the stats change dramatically as we move from undergrad, to postgrad, to lecturer, to positions of power in the decisions about what research is, should be for, how it should be used, in nearly every discipline. If we don’t take on the fight for fair pay, we at the same time give up the struggle needed for equality in pay.
People (again real, human people) are hiding behind the cloak of liberal “objectivity” to mask, maybe even from themselves, the power they have to really push an equalities agenda in HE, with a knock on effect across the whole of education. They need to stop paying lip service to “concerns” while complying with the instructions which are destroying the future of education, selling students a third rate passport in place of intelligent development, destroying the lives of staff through stress and overwork, and tossing aside all the (liberal) non-marketable knowledge we need to nourish us as a holistic forward moving society.
We need to stop waiting for a breaking point where suddenly the workers and students stop in their tracks and finally recognise a line crossing. This isn’t how the drip drip of neo-liberal right wing capitalist forces work, and it isn’t going to happen. We all need to open our eyes to what the destruction of education means in this country, and take the decision to fight to win.