Mrs Thatcher’s Universities

Peter Pulzer

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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[*] Macmillan, 190 pp., £29.50 and £12.99, 11 May, 0 333 49058 4.