Mrs Thatcher’s Universities
For most of this year some of my colleagues have been taking ‘industrial action’, either refusing to mark scripts and examine theses, or to disclose the marks they have awarded. They have now abandoned this, but that does not invalidate the question: what on earth is going on? What are academics doing, taking industrial action?
We live in revolutionary times, and much that would have seemed unimaginable ten years ago has come to pass. Who would have prophesied in 1979, with some prospect of being taken seriously, that not merely Rolls-Royce and British Leyland and the National Freight Corporation would be privatised ten years later, but that the telephones and the gas industry would be too, with water and electricity on the Parliamentary agenda and even coal, the railways and the Post Office in the Government’s sights? That one million council houses would have been sold off? That doctors’ surgeries would be anti-Conservative committee-rooms, as happened in the Vale of Glamorgan by-election in May; that Arthur Scargill would be seeking to become a fully-owned subsidiary of Ron Todd? Yet all this has come to pass, and so has industrial action by academics.
That is, for me, the saddest development of all. Fashions may change in how best to run an industry or public service; opinions differ on the best way to satisfy the housing market; and relations between trade unions are probably a matter for consenting adults in private. But once a profession has changed its character, it is difficult to reverse the process. I have never belonged to the Association of University Teachers, because it seemed to me the wrong kind of organisation to represent academics. Of course we need proper salaries and tolerable conditions, but we are not hired labourers contributing to an entrepreneur’s profits; no one is depriving us of surplus value. The shop-floor style of collective bargaining and the mentalities it engenders do not fit our individualistic inclinations and highly divergent ways of defining our obligations.
All trade-union leaderships run the risk of degenerating into self-serving oligarchies, more concerned with defending their empires than with considering the long-term interests of their members. In the present dispute the AUT, like all unions, insists on the sanctity of national bargaining and uniform salary scales. But this serves the power and autonomy of union professionals more obviously than the interests of universities and those who work in them.
There is, as we know and as I shall elaborate, much to criticise in the way the Government is treating the universities. It must bear a major share of the blame for the recent impasse. But the exam boycott was wrong in principle and wrong in practice, and wrong in practice because wrong in principle. The Vice-Chancellors, whatever tactical errors they may have committed, are not 19th-century mill-owners, grasping pennies that are rightfully ours. Most universities are running a deficit and yet the AUT persisted in asking for money it knew was not there. The only money that universities can disburse is tomorrow’s seed-corn. The possibility that some universities may make improved offers does not alter this fact. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, one of those contemplating this step, confirmed that truth by saying: ‘I just hope we can pick it up nationally.’ There is only one source from which extra cash can come in the short term: the Government. Yet the AUT insist that its quarrel was with ‘the employers’, because that is the way union leaders’ one-track minds work.
The boycott was wrong in principle because the people we were harming are not the people who are harming us. We are, or were when I first became an academic, a profession with an ethos. The ethos was one of its attractions. Not everyone lived up to it all the time, but on the whole, if extra time or work were needed to help a student or a colleague, one put it in. We are all quite accustomed to working until midnight or at weekends, despite the widespread popular assumption that we have an 18-hour week and ‘all those holidays’. Until quite recently Oxford dons did not even have contracts of employment. There was simply an assumption that most of us most of the time could be relied on to be good citizens. That is how the place kept going and indeed keeps going. Now, for the first time in the history of British universities, we were being urged to adopt a different principle – that of taking the clients hostage.
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Vol. 11 No. 14 · 27 July 1989
Peter Pulzer writes most of what I hoped to read about Mrs Thatcher’s Universities (LRB, 22 June). Perhaps I, a former university teacher whose pension is index-linked, as the salaries of my still working colleagues are not, should keep out if it. But I was a member of the Association of University Teachers – indeed for a time a branch chairman – so I will not.
I make one point only – one which I am sure has been a part of the argument among university teachers, but which Pulzer did not make explicitly. He gets near it when he says that in threatening not to conduct or mark final examinations the teachers were acting against the students, who were not the enemy (and indeed could not affect the outcome). But the threat was by one side to refuse to keep to the final – and crucial – part of a long-standing bargain between two sides, the other side having kept to its part. All students assume that their attendances and studies over three or four years are to lead to examinations, and to the award of degrees as appropriate; they notice their teachers supporting and encouraging them in that assumption. Assuming for a crude calculation that about a half of a university teacher’s responsibility is in teaching and examining, and that about one in three students was to be thus harmed, ought not the teachers to have offered to repay about one-sixth of their (admittedly inadequate) last three years’ salaries?
Of course, we do not know how many students thought that the threat might actually be implemented, but it was made, and made at the time when most students are full of anxiety. It is hard to imagine a suitably damaging analogy to the action threatened, but I am working on it – perhaps something about retired couples saving up for years and paying for retirement homes which turn out not to have been built.
Peter Pulzer’s own recognition that universities are now places dependent on research funding from private industry, on the sale of courses to overseas students at high fees, and on commercial sponsorship of courses, should serve to convince him of what there was never any doubt about: his position as a ‘hired labourer’ in a profession increasingly demanding of entrepreneurial skills. Gentlemen’s agreements such as existed at Oxford may seem more acceptable, but AUT members, along with the employees of other hard-pressed, under-funded public services, have realised that being a ‘good citizen’ doesn’t pay the mortgage. If it ever did. Dr Johnson says: ‘Our Universities are impoverished of learning, by the penury of their provisions. I wish there were many places of a thousand a-year at Oxford, to keep first-rate men of learning from quitting the University.’ An 18th-century brain drain.
The AUT was surely right to demand money that wasn’t there – wasn’t that the point of the protest? And as in the case of the strike threatened by the dock labourers, this dispute had to be with the employer in order not to be deemed political and thus illegal, and can have had nothing to do with union leaders’ so-called ‘one-track minds’. Professor Pulzer’s antagonism towards the unions interferes further with his argument. Speaking of the desire for national salary agreements, he claims that this ‘serves the power and autonomy of union professionals more obviously than the interests of universities and those who work in them’. This becomes less obvious later on, when the question of attracting and retaining high-calibre staff is raised. The Government’s remedy of ‘greater differentials in salaries within and between universities’ risks ‘adding to our miseries’. The examination boycott is described as wrong in practice because wrong in principle. We read on to see that ‘the boycott was wrong in practice because nobody would benefit from it.’ It didn’t work. Only £285 was forthcoming. If the boycott was wrong in principle it was, in my view, because it seemed to be about enriching individuals rather than fighting for improved state funding throughout the higher education system. There are undeniably people out there who deplore, as Peter Pulzer does, what the present government is doing to our public institutions: but they are unlikely to warm to the special pleading and self-regarding élitism displayed in this article.
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
Many readers will appreciate Peter Pulzer’s admirable article (LRB, 22 June) with its emphasis on the dangers of the adversary spirit eroding the academic ethos. At the end he commends the ‘Save British Science’ campaign and suggests a campaign of ‘powerful, rational persuasion’. I hope that he will encourage his fellow dons at Oxford to join. At present there are two organisations known to me – the Standing Conference on Arts and Social Sciences (SCASS) and the Political Studies Association (PSA) engaged in promoting activities of this type. Alas, scholars from Oxford are little in evidence.
University of Birmingham
Vol. 11 No. 17 · 14 September 1989
Peter Pulzer (LRB, 22 June) pulls his punches. If, as it seems, the Government believes in replacing education with training, then the educated should expose such philistinism through remorseless critical analysis and publish it at every opportunity without fear of the consequences. If they can’t do this, then they deserve to be ‘retrained’.
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire