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Opinion

The university strike is a symptom of our skewed value system

When we turned education into a commodity, we laid the foundations for declining pay and working conditions for academics and staff. Now they’re fighting back

The next big social fissure is already open. We’ve just not been focused on it. 

While our attention has been on Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, last week in Britain 50,000 people were mandated to strike. The industrial action will directly impact one million others. That’s a lot of people.  

Staff at 68 universities are going to extend strike action. That isn’t far from half of all universities in the UK. There have already been some stoppages, but they’re going to grow. The University and College Union, the member union for staff, announced last week that disaffection was growing and has led to the escalation. Their complaints are over pay, pensions and conditions. They say there has been a real-term cut of 25 per cent in salary since 2009. They’re particularly annoyed that guaranteed pensions are being threatened with a 35 per cent hammering. 

And all across social media you will find staff who describe precarious conditions where there are no long-term contracts, where pay is far behind qualifications and experience and where morale is on the lecture hall floor. 

So, in the coming weeks, they plan to agitate for positive change.  

There may be early sympathy for the workers; their requests look legitimate and correct. And anecdotal evidence from friends within academia does not paint a rosy picture. 

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But I suspect this won’t last. And it’s not the fault of the teachers and the academics with the knowledge and the guts to teach in third-level institutions. It’s because they’ve been thrown into a commercial corner.  

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Nick Clegg, now one of Facebook’s grand Poobahs, might be enjoying life as a global power-broker, but we are living with his decision to back tuition fees. His apology over that is currently feeling very lame. 

Because of the commoditisation of education, a different sort of expectation has been raised. The argument that annual fees, paid back when a certain graduate salary level has been reached, have opened the door to university education for those with no private means is true. But the unintended consequence is one of demand for success. That students pay around £30,000 (in the majority of English universities) for a degree and expect a certain level of service for those big numbers. And if those expectations are not met, they’ll seek some level of compensation. 

I’m surprised the kickback from students hasn’t happened yet. They are likely to suffer in this too. The image of the lazy student crawling to one afternoon lecture a week and lazing the rest of the time is long gone. An organisation called savethestudent.org, which offers independent advice on money matters to students, found last year that two-thirds of students have a part-time job. They also found that 34 per cent of students said not having enough money negatively impacted on their studies.  

All of this is being played out in a shadow of skewed value system. Much of the debate is around what degree is worth what job. I think helping and nurturing a brilliant cellist or artist is as valuable to society as turning out somebody with a good business management degree. But that is a hard argument to hold. 

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I hope university staff don’t become convenient ammunition in the next part of the culture war – woke collateral against REAL worries that the population faces. But I fear they will. Otherwise the idea of 50,000 people striking for fair pay would have made bigger headlines.  

We need to be careful with what we accept. This will have very strong echoes for years to come. 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. Read more of his columns here.

@PauldMcNamee

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