The famous phrase about “lies, damned lies and statistics” is well suited to the situation that has engulfed many of the country’s universities this week.
A significant number of University and College Union (UCU) members, myself included, at universities established before 1992 have withdrawn their labour over the potential decimation of their pensions.
And the strike action has been given all the more impetus by the concern and scepticism about some of the figures that have been presented recently.
Vice-chancellors’ pay packets (and their ridiculous parting pay-offs), questions over the alleged £6bn deficit in the pension scheme, and the numbers of votes granted to Oxbridge colleges in determining that contested figure have all come in for well-deserved scrutiny.
But two key stats made an appearance during the first 24 hours of the strike that put the dispute into even starker perspective.
First came the reminder of the 20-year employer contribution reduction (or holiday) which would, had it not been taken, have wiped the current slate clean. Universities that have been making huge surpluses during the past three decades had the opportunity to invest more of that into their people.
Then came the revelation that the man in charge of the University Superannuation Scheme pension fund that is in such apparent turmoil has recently been handed a 17 per cent pay rise. That little slap in the face would have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the media focus brought about by the picket lines.
The fact it came hard on the heels of university bosses also directly profiting from a scheme said to be on its knees just adds to the perception that there are different rules for some than for others.
However, for a lot of us, this strike isn’t just to do with the salaries of vice-chancellors or pensions bosses, or even the historic degradation of benefits.
Well, not for me at least. After all, this is only my fourth year in an academic job and having spent the formative years of my working life in the private sector, I know only too well where this path can lead.
What’s more, this is the first time I’ve joined a union, and the first time I’ve taken part in a strike. The reason for that is partly my experiences on the other side of the fence.
Before I started as a lecturer I was in a management position at a regional newspaper company and spent many an hour talking to staff and union reps about avoiding industrial action.
Now when I survey the challenged state of the regional press, I do wonder whether a greater investment in people could have been a more productive path.
I’m also conscious that there exists in many sectors a traditional management culture of happily banking the unexpected profits of unpaid wages from a strike to help support the bottom line.
That’s why I broadly support students demanding refunds, despite critics suggesting that this further embeds a consumer mentality which should be avoided. I want my unpaid wages to go to a good home.
The other significant reason why I elected to strike was a sense of being left short-changed compared to what I thought I had bought into when I entered the university system.
I took a pay cut to escape a culture of entrenchment and to take on a role in which I felt I could devote my energies to an important cause, both in terms of education and collegiality. It was about being valued, by my employer as well as my students. I didn’t come into higher education to have my future drastically re-shaped by a nebulous umbrella organisation such as Universities UK.
And hopefully the end result will be something that will still mean that all students, many of who rightfully feel they are caught in the middle of this dispute, get their further education within a true community of learning.
Mark Bradley is director of postgraduate studies at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Journalism Studies
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