Photo credits: The Northern Echo.
Last Friday, Clare, a philosophy Assistant Professor at Durham University, very kindly agreed to meet me to talk over some of the reasons for and impacts of the strike. I hope to reach out to students and provide an accessible overview to inform about the current strike action, its impact and potential consequences.
The strikes are directly targeting the threat of drastic cuts to lecturer pension funds, in some cases falling from around £18,000 per annum to just over £8,000, yet this is not their sole purpose. ‘This strike isn’t just about pensions, it’s about how the whole sector has been commodified and destroyed. Around 50% of staff are on hourly rate wages or temporary contracts, which is exploitative. We live in a culture of marginalisation of academics, and the pension cuts are the final straw’. The strike is set to last 14 days, which shocked some, including Clare, who decided to participate anyway. ‘We will lose £1,000 by participating. Most of those who aren’t striking either can’t afford it, or are thinking of their students in the short term’. Clare explained that of course, she worried about her students’ learning, but this pension cut was going to have a life-changing impact on her long-term living standards. If the cuts were to happen, the effect would be so large that she might have to consider other career options. ‘I absolutely love what I do, but I could be left with no choice’.
Photo credits: BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-43147137
We also spoke about the detrimental impact that the pension fund cuts might have on prospective academics and the future quality of university education. The academic world is tough- after years of study and funding to get a foot in the door, lecturers are pressured to constantly publish in academic journals, preferably in the ‘top ten’ of their discipline in some cases, to secure a job. A drastic fall in pension funds is likely to make lecturing unattractive, which will directly impact university education quality in the near future.
Clare also explained that there has been no backlash or antagonism in the academic community at Durham University, for everyone has respected each other’s reasons when choosing whether to strike or not. Furthermore, there have been no negative reactions from students directed at lecturers, however a little more student support would be appreciated. We as students have a voice, and we can come together as a community to defend the living standards of our lecturers, the quality of our education and the long term evolution of university education, which should be valued intrinsically, and not as a money-maker.
Photo credits: Jon Super for the Guardian
When did education become so acutely commodified? Price per year has increased, lecturer salaries are below those in most sectors, accommodation fees are stifling- and not only that, but every year jobs seem to demand an extra one or two qualifications to take students to be serious competitors- and this requires more $. Inevitably, this growing bubble of education has created a generation of university students who, in turn see their education first and foremost as expenses instead of as a positive addition to their future and welfare.
In response to the strikes, students started a petition demanding that the University provide strike compensation, for each day apparently costs students £81. When asked if she agreed with this demand, Clare simply stated ‘it depends on the University’s management. They have created a generation of students who view themselves as consumers, and become the first victims of the commodification of the sector. If this is what they understand education to be then yes, maybe the students should be compensated’. The provision of appropriate living standards for lecturers can only reap benefits- higher quality education, higher quality research, and motivation for future academics to join the sector. It’s about time that we stop treating education as a commodity that we’re buying and as a business opportunity, and start re-assessing the value of our investment choices. And the system needs to do the same.
Some university Vice-Chancellors across the UK have already offered to increase pension fund contributions, hopefully a step in the right direction. Negotiations however, are set to take time, and every day that goes by, lecturers’ lifestyles are on the line, and students are missing out on education integral to their academic development.
By: Lara Santos Ayllón