The university staff currently on strike are not preventing the university from working.
We are the university.
So when we say we are broken, this means the university is broken.
What is wrong? This is an answer for my students, for my colleagues who are not on strike, and for the wider public.
It is wrong that up to a third of teaching in many universities is done by staff who are on short-term contracts. It is wrong that many of these highly-qualified staff are not paid properly to prepare their teaching, nor paid enough to do the marking that often goes with it. It is wrong that many of these staff are left uncertain of their future, and saddled with excessive debt as they are forced to move around the country, or around the world to follow ‘opportunities’.
It is wrong that women in UK universities are paid an average of 15.1% less per hour than men are. It is wrong that black and minority ethnic staff at Russell Group universities are paid an average of 26% less than their white colleagues.
It is wrong for universities to shift more and more of the financial burden for pensions on to workers.
The solutions are not complex.
What they are is expensive.
We – the striking members of the University and Colleges Union – have a positive vision for what the University can be: an employer that values its staff and does not just play lip service to our concerns.
So what does it mean to heal the university?
It means offering open-ended, full-time contracts as standard. It means paying for our work – all of our work, including marking and prep. It means hiring more staff when there is more work, whether that is because we have greater numbers of students than ever before, or because our jobs have become more technologically and bureaucratically complex. More staff of all kinds: teachers, cleaners, librarians, administrators, researchers and all of the other many kinds of jobs in a modern university.
It means taking the lion’s share of the financial responsibility for our pensions, so we can work in the knowledge that we won’t fall into poverty in retirement.
And it means raising the salaries for women and black and minority ethnic staff to match white male salaries. (Don’t believe it can be done? This is how the University of Essex closed their gender pay gap at professorial level.)
We know all these things are expensive. But the real question is: how much is it costing the university to not fix these problems?
The cost is measured in the mental health crisis among staff as well as students.
It’s measured in the lost generation of brilliant teachers and researchers forced into any other more dependable line of work.
It’s measured in the dissatisfactions students have with the education they are getting in the current system.
So where will the money come from?
I don’t share the belief of some of my colleagues that the money that should be going to staff is going to shiny new buildings. The university deserves both good buildings and good staff. Perhaps there are some areas of corporate practice – such as branding and consultancies – where universities might cut back their spending. Perhaps some universities would balance their books if they just called a stop to interminable expansion.
More likely, the current funding model just is not enough to pay staff properly for the work they do.
But it is the job of university leaders – of the vice-chancellors and of Universities UK – to lead. It is their responsibility to make the case to government for more public funding, to make it clear that this is what our universities need. In fact, it is their job not to let the government off the hook for offloading the cost of universities onto students.
Education – much like healthcare – is expensive.
But can we afford not to invest?