In his article on Thursday 15th March, John Clough told you that the Arts Tower occupation is “stupid.” Why? Supposedly, the occupation resembles a dramatic re-enactment of Les Misérables. Except, unlike in Les Mis, they’re not even sticking it to The Man! Because The Man isn’t the university boss who earns thirty times the lowest paid worker, or the corporation which dodges billions in taxes: it’s actually anyone whose wages are “above average”. And what’s worse, these fat cats on their above-average wages want a pension which is partly funded by taxpayer money. They want to grow old in comfort while the rest of us die miserable, cold and alone, impoverished from paying their pension.
He’s wrong, and here’s why.
Teaching in universities is no longer as secure as it used to be. From 2010 to 2016, average pay for academic staff has fallen in real terms, and in 2015-16 the proportion universities spent on staff also fell, suggesting that this isn’t an issue of squeezed budgets but warped priorities. True, academic pay remains double the national average. But consider that universities now rely on zero hours contracts for up to half of teaching, around 21,000 people, and many struggle to make ends meet. Some have told me that, once they account for preparation and marking time, they receive well below the minimum wage. Clough also seems to have forgotten about all the support staff who are on strike, who on average earn £10,000 less than the academics they support.
While university workers’ pay has stagnated, the pay of university executives has increased hugely. Research by Times Higher has shown that the average cost of vice-chancellors’ salaries and benefits to universities has risen 12% in real terms from 2010 to 2015. This is a society-wide issue: if the minimum wage had risen as fast as executive pay nationally, it would be £26,000 per year.
Clough tells us that our teachers are “perpetuating modern capitalism” and, on that basis, left-wing students are stupid to defend them. But something which has much more clearly propped up the economic status quo over the past few decades are the anti-trade union laws which have made it increasingly difficult for workers to unionise and defend their interests. Research by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) has shown that the decline of trade union membership and collective bargaining has contributed to widening inequality. The present strike over pensions is the first nationwide strike since the new anti-trade union laws were introduced; its success or failure will set a clear precedent for the future.
All this is regrettable, you might say, but the fact is that the pensions bill is being footed by the taxpayer. We’ll be working ourselves to the bone with no prospect of a good retirement, only to have a good chunk of that pay taken from us to heat our lecturers’ personal libraries and fill their wine cellars. Well, that’s possible, yes. But if it is, it’s because the wealthiest have received massive tax breaks which have diminished the public purse. As a result, the current method of managing the public purse is to cut billions from public spending on things like pensions, increasing inequality. There’s an alternative: tax the super-rich and big business. It’s been done before, and it can be done again.
No one is imagining that shutting down the Arts Tower for a few days is going to bring about a revolutionary transformation of society. No one is even imagining that the occupation will decisively end the dispute between UCU and UUK. This occupation, along with the twenty others taking place across the UK, is increasing the disruption of the strike, just as intended. It’s unfortunate that disruption must be resorted to, but when lecturers and support staff each stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds, and when management have responded in such a belligerent, uncooperative fashion, a few days less teaching time really isn’t much at all. Bigger things are at stake.