The marking boycott and the future of higher education

From 6 November, members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) will begin a marking boycott throughout the UK. This is a cause of huge regret and discomfort to all academic staff, but university management is nationally taking a hard-line stance and lecturers have been left with no other viable course of action. Since our first professional concern is for the education of our students – we, not the senior managers, are the ones who work with and for students every day of our professional lives – it is important that students understand the reasons for the boycott. There are several, but perhaps the top three are these:

  1. University managers are threatening to cut academic pensions by a third, endangering current teaching provision.
  2. Student ‘tuition’ fees are rising at an accelerating rate but management is spending less and less on tuition.
  3. Added to rising tuition fees, this proposed cut threatens to discourage today’s students from becoming tomorrow’s lecturers, which endangers higher education in the future.

1. Universities UK (UUK), the national body which represents university managers, has decided that the lecturers’ pension scheme (USS) needs to cut academic pensions by up to a third (though some special pension provision for university managers will be untouched). The Universities of Oxford and Warwick have broken ranks with UUK and say that the planned reforms are financially unnecessary and will damage university education by making the career unattractive, but so far UUK is refusing to negotiate. As students know all too well, this country is seeing accelerating rises in ‘tuition’ fees because of decisions taken by the government and UUK (in the teeth of opposition from lecturers and the UCU), and we think that cutting the investment in the university teaching profession is no way to preserve world-class education.

2. This boycott is therefore also about the proper use of student fees. Overall pre-1992 university income has risen by a quarter during the last five years. But as student fees rise to create this huge bulge in university income, investment in teaching in older universities is actually falling (post-1992 institutions are investing more than pre-1992 institutions, and their pensions are not under the same threat, which raises uncomfortable questions of comparison). Yet at the same time, there seems to be no shortage of money to spend on ‘re-branding’ our universities, for creating new ‘directorates’ and other higher-level management functions, or for paying 50% bonuses to the pension fund’s investment manager, who earns £900,000 a year. That can’t be the right way to spend the income from the massive and increasing debt that government and university managers are piling onto all our students. The priorities are wrong: the priority should be students and their education, and that means spending their fees to invest in the lecturers who teach them.

3. The proposed changes to pensions offer little incentive to students to go on to a Masters or Doctorate with the idea of becoming lecturers themselves. Some in government are talking openly about lifting the fee cap altogether, and when that happens, who but the very richest could afford to build up a debt of £150,000 or more simply to get a first lecturing job, if they have no hope of a decent pension at the end of it? The consequences of this decision for future generations – for the children of today’s students – could be truly catastrophic.

We are undertaking this marking boycott in the hope that students will appreciate that to protect the education they are currently enjoying, to make it possible to continue offering that education in the future, and to apply pressure on management to invest their ‘tuition’ fees in their actual tuition, we have to fight now. We hope that the boycott will be very short, so that it does not affect students too much. It grieves us enormously that we are forced by management into taking a form of action that hurts the people with whom we have no quarrel, and whose interests – now and in the future – we are fighting for. But we feel that limited disruption now is preferable to the catastrophe that could follow if we do not act for the sake of future generations.

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Paul Harper-Scott

Dialectical materialist, feminist, Left musicologist.

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