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The real lessons of lecturers' pay walk-out

Sun, 4th Jun 2006
04 Jun 2006: The Observer - Page 8 - (830 words)
Business & Media: Business: MANAGEMENT EDITOR: The real lessons of lecturers' pay walk-out
By:

THERE ARE no neat strike actions. But the increasingly bitter university pay dispute, which saw lecturers refusing to call off their exam-marking boycott last week and some universities retaliating by docking pay, is a classic case of long-term public-sector mismanagement. After years of fudge, bullying and refusal to will the means to match the ends that have been decreed, Britain's universities are in a profound malaise of which the strike is only the outward symptom.

On the surface, today's argument is about money. Since the 1980s, academics have lagged other professions in the pay league - the average lecturer gets about pounds 35,000, in real terms much the same as 20 years ago. At the same time productivity has greatly increased. Over the last 10 years full-time staff totals have fallen from 111,000 to 107,000 while annual numbers of graduates climbed from 286,000 to 444,000 - an increase of more than 50 per cent. As a result, staff-student ratios soared from 1:9 to 1:20 or 1:25 - in some new universities higher than in secondary schools.

One catalyst for action has been top-up fees, for which university vice-chancellors lobbied (and some Labour MPs voted) partly to allow them to bump up pay. In April 2004, Alan Johnson, the then minister, told Parliament that 'at least a third' of the money would be spent on salaries, helping to tackle 'a very serious and deep-seated problem'.

The unions are furious that the employers' offer of 13.1 per cent over three years fails to honour this promise - and their resolve to hold out for 23 per cent is stiffened by the knowledge that their bosses' pay has leapt by 30, 40 or in some cases even 60 per cent over the last three years - vice-chancellors' pay is particularly sensitive because of the ostentatious way it rubs academic noses in the ascendancy of the managerialist agenda in university affairs.

Margaret Thatcher, who hated the universities (and vice versa) started this - but New Labour has driven it forward with such fervour that many academics believe it has turned them into bureaucrats fulfilling five-year output plans rather than teachers and seekers of knowledge. Some pressures stem from the clash of conflicting targets. How, for instance, are institutions supposed to admit 50 per cent of the school-leaver cohort but not drop standards, or increase undergraduate diversity while still treating every case on its merits - all without spending more on staff? More insidious and toxic, however, have been the effects of the dreaded teaching and research audits, which are an even more compelling demonstration than the NHS of the way quantifying management methods can destroy the object of their focus.

Because funding and student applications depend on research and teaching ratings, universities go to great lengths to improve their scores. Even though the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is two years off, institutions are already drafting submissions, conducting mock inspections, hiring consultants to coach (or hide) weaker departments and individuals, and setting up PR and marketing campaigns to spin results. Before the cut-off date in 2007 a buzzing transfer market in star researchers is ratcheting up overall costs for no additional gain in quantity or quality.

According to official estimates, the 2008 RAE will cost pounds 45m. This seems peanuts compared with the pounds 15bn spent on higher education as a whole - but it takes no account of the colossal indirect costs noted above, nor of the uncountable damage to morale and enthusiasm. The fact that universities are full of sharp people who learn quickly how to play the game (while detesting themselves for participating in what they know to be a farce) only increases its perversity: for every new edition the auditors have to refine and extend the rules, while more academic brainpower is diverted into finding ways around them. Although the even more bureaucratic teaching audit has been abandoned in favour of supposedly 'lighter touch' inspection, the damage has been done. Audits have become instruments of central control, dividing scholars and university managers, distorting research and teaching priorities and turning off bright young researchers from taking up an academic career.

The daft thing is that universities already had measurable 'outputs' - degrees, and books and articles in peer-reviewed journals - so well-connected schools knew exactly which departments were good ones. Ironically, target pressure means that neither measure is now reliable: grade inflation is rife, and journals whose only purpose is to publish articles for RAE purposes have proliferated. Some lecturers feel uneasily that their unions have missed a trick by not making RAE - the real enemy - the focus of today's strike, rather than exams, which pits them against students. Whatever the result of the dispute, the festering underlying grievance will simmer on.

* Many thanks to the numerous readers who responded to last week's article. Some pointed out that the iPod is only incompatible with Windows music files, others noted that LaVern Baker's 'Saved' is now on iTunes, and a few helpfully sent downloads. Much appreciated.

The Observer, 4 June 2006


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