Streeting Shits on Students

This post was written by Jacob on April 27, 2009
Posted Under: Education,Employment,Public Sector,Trade Unions

When starting this blog, we promised that we wouldn’t write about student unions, but the last week has brought about an important event that has wider political implications. The UCU (University and College Union) are currently balloting their members for industrial action on pay. This last happened three years ago, at which point a three-year pay deal for lecturers was agreed, but in many ways it was hard-won. Some of you will remember that members of the union refused to mark exam scripts and coursework, meaning that there was a delay in many students getting their grades and graduating. As a student I stood on a picket of the New Museums site in Cambridge, alongside lecturers. We were together fighting for a cause – for better working conditions for university staff, and in turn better education for students. The two were (and still are) inseparable.

So, this week, when NUS president Wes Streeting decided to say that “Students need industrial action by university staff like a hole in the head.” I was pretty appalled. I wasn’t shocked, but I was appalled. Streeting is a careerist Blairite, and of course his line is going to fall in line with the government if it means he ends up an MP, but he really has forgotten what his role as NUS president is. The argument that he uses is that the NUS is a protective pressure group, and exists to defend its members, and of course there are some short-term negative consequences of these sorts of actions, but what he is forgetting is that the NUS is there to defend the position of students within society. The fact is that students will always be better off if lecturers have better conditions. Streeting is all too willing to sell out future generations of students to save a little inconvenience for the current members of the NUS. As long as the shit doesn’t hit the fan on his watch it’s not his problem. But actually I think there’s something a little more sinister going on here.

Wes Streeting and his despicable ilk are only able to make comments like this in the context of a so-called “depoliticised” student movement. It is only when the NUS has been thoroughly relieved of any ideology, when the union is at the service of the students rather than the students being at the service of the union, that remarks like this may pass. It is only when being a student is not a political category. It is only when the student becomes a customer or a client, taking from the university rather than his or her being a student is an element of his or her identity, that statements like this make any sense. If the NUS is just an umbrella organisation that represents a bunch of people who happen to be studying at any particular time then it can’t do anything (and actually, this is why it does do things so infrequently.) On the other hand if the NUS was really about defending the material conditions of students, and I refer to students on the most abstract level here, then it would be fighting alongside the UCU for high quality teaching in our universities.

In some ways it may be a difficult situation: choosing to defend the concept of the student in the face of a bit of inconvenience for some rather real people, but that is a choice that must be made. I am reminded of a decision on a much smaller scale when I was a student. At my college (where all students lived for three years) rents were discussed every year, and every year there would be a bargaining process with the students’ association. One year, the college said “We don’t want to do this anymore. From the next year of intake we want fixed rates of rent for each year group as they enter for three years, based on our projections of inflation. There will be no bargaining in this process, because you can’t make decisions for people who aren’t yet members of the student association.” And as a sweetener they offered to freeze the rents of all current undergrads for the rest of their degrees. And what happened? Well, of course, the students’ association sold out the future students of the college. They fucked their future constituents, all for saving a little bit of cash. But in this case the NUS don’t even get any cash, they just get to be a bit more matey with the government.

Wes Streeting, if you do ever read this I wish to remind you that you are a fucking scab. That’s the only way to describe someone who sells out their peers in such a monumental fashion. You are a fucking scourge on the good name of unionism. I can just about understand why some third years might be worried about this action but it is up to people at the top of NUS, who have both distance and understanding, to show the students what the political situation is, and what the principled position is (have you ever heard of principles?) You are not there to act out, in your scabbing ways, the destruction of everything the student movement in this country has ever fought for.

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Reader Comments

Will

Jacob,

I can understand you’re argument in agreement with the lecturers. But the whole ‘careerist scab’ bit lets your argument down, by being entirely removed from it. Just because someone disagrees with your principles, doesn’t make them unprincipled. Wes Streeting may be unprinciple, and he may be a careerist scab, I’ve no idea, but I entirely support his position on this.

You can, to a large degree, separate lecturers pay with the quality of the education. I agree that lecturers and researchers seem underpaid, as they’re highly skilled. However there’s a big market for them. We see all the time that there are a lot of universities who will poach staff. So great educators will get paid more, because there’s demand for them. Industrial action doesn’t benefit the truly amazing staff, because they already get poached with inducements by universities. It benefits the average. Indeed, in banding pay together, it provides less of an incentive to become a great educator, by lessening the “mark-up” from an average faculty member to a truly great one. Moreover, there’s a limited amount of money. To show paying lecturers more is good for education would be to show that paying them more is better than spending the money on more lecturers, more bursaries or better facilities. Given the limited budget, I’d rather the money went on some of these.

However you can’t separate industrial action from the harm it does to students’ education. Students suffer because lecturers refuse to lecture. Yes, in the short term only, but in education you can’t say “don’t worry, it’ll only be bad this year”, as that year is a whole set of students. You can’t fix their education, even if you improve the ones behind it by raising their lecturers’ pay (though I still doubt this effect).

Your example with Robinson’s rent is a shame. Not because the students sold out, as I can’t imagine any committee not getting lynched if they turned down such an offer, but because it shows how little say a JCR gets. If the deal was bad for the incoming students, and the JCR had any power, when they came in, they’d disagree with the deal struck by the last committee. What this example shows is that JCRs have little say when it comes to rent. Colleges negotiate as a courtesy, but they could quite easily have just stated a set cost that rises with inflation without JCR agreement.

However this is beside the point, as sadly, this article makes an assumption and then uses it as an attack on the other side, without any argument. Streeting may be being unprincipled, but we don’t know that. He may believe that current student welfare would be damaged by industrial action to a greater extent than the gain for future students from greater pay for lecturers. Or that industrial action won’t work.

There is an argument to be made for paying lecturers more. There is an argument that lecturers’ pay and education quality are inseparable. But you haven’t made either of these. Nor have you really made an argument of why Wes Streeting is unprincipled or a careerist scab. However you have tried to smear the other side as having ulterior motives, when people can disagree with you because of principles or practicality.

#1 
Written By Will on April 28th, 2009 @ 12:18 am
Marty Kauffman

“when the union is at the service of the students rather than the students being at the service of the union” – and what the hell is wrong with that? Isn’t that the purpose of a democratic union? Or is the purpose of a democratic union to fight battles that students don’t want, which would imply less than democracy?

I am graduating this year. I understand that lecturers deserve better pay. I know what it’s like to get paid shit. And I know what it’s like to ask for more: they almost never give it to you, so you get desperate. But please, can’t they do it some other way that doesn’t fuck students over? If they have failed to negotiate a pay increase, that is sad: but why use us as bargaining chips? Are they that desperate?

I want to support these lecturers for the greater good of the future of higher education. But would people in burning houses be expected to support striking firefighters? I think not. My house is burning down. Despite working part-time almost every week for the last 3 years I am still 20k deep in debt. Now the recession has come, I might not get a job for a year. And lecturers think I and millions like me are bargaining chips?

I’m sorry, it’s very easy for those who aren’t students or who have some kind of safety net through mummy and daddy to piss on the rest of us for not wanting to get shafted. The lecturers’ cause is right, but this is not the time nor the place to pick their fight. They could have organised more effectively throughout the year to force a settlement. Why now, when the only people they will damage are graduating students?

#2 
Written By Marty Kauffman on April 28th, 2009 @ 2:43 am
Marty Kauffman

Streeting is a shill, but for once I agree with him. You say you met in the early 2000s at bloody Cambridge. Well good for you. Perhaps you have a job now. You paid £1000 per year in fees. This year, I paid £3145.

You are shitting on students by expecting them to support lecturers at the worst possible time, not Streeting. Get off from your Cambridge High Horse, and join the plebs.

#3 
Written By Marty Kauffman on April 28th, 2009 @ 2:46 am

I don’t think the above commenters are really being fair. The Lecturers who are going on strike are not the ones screwing over students.

That would be the government, their vice-chancellors and the university’s administration that is skimping on the most important input to student life for the sake of a few pounds.

Idustrial action is not entered into lightly and it is certainly not done to use students as bargaining chips. If anyone is guilty of that it is the University administration. I can understand students being worried and scared about the quality of their degrees but the best way to safe guard it is to join with the lecturers and add strength and numbers to their cause.

Wes Streeting certainly sounds like an idiot and it makes me somewhat happy that my University disaffiliated before I got there.

#4 
Written By Left Outside on April 28th, 2009 @ 9:50 am

Jesus we’re getting some clever, clever commenters at the moment.

1. Jacob is calling Wes a careerist because he is one. This is not ad hominem, it is an integral part of his argument. Wes’ position is to oppose the democratic decisions of a partner union, and to effectively support scabbing. This is what makes him a scab.

2. The ‘money could be better spent’ argument is a red herring. The context is funding cuts across Higher Education, not a pot from which greedy lecturers are demanding more pay. The industrial action, if taken, will be in defence of the sector, and against course cuts. The NUS claims to oppose these cuts too, but condemns the only action that might beat them.

3. The ‘using students as bargaining chips’ argument is no different from the usual attacks on strikers that they are inconveniencing the public, and should be treated with the same contempt. Everyone has the right to withdraw their labour, full stop.

4. Mr Kaufmann, you’re lucky I diginify you with any response at all between champagne sips, but I’ll briefly put down my caviar spoon and point out that it is, indeed, outrageous that you pay £3145 in fees, and that when we were students we campaigned against that very thing, despite never having to pay it ourselves. This is in contrast to the attitude Wes, and indeed you, are adopting now. Now grow up and stop the sanctimonious crap. You know nothing about our backgrounds other than what university we went to.

#5 
Written By Dan on April 28th, 2009 @ 7:25 pm
Julia

Jacob, your post on Streeting is excellent. It makes me sick when I see all the student leaders of my day like Jack Straw pouring our money into the pockets of the already rich and powerful, wreaking destruction in order to grab oil fields and pipelines, and promoting the interests of ruthless profiteers over the needs of vulnerable people. But at least at the time they had to pretend to be radical. Nowadays brazen careerism and self-interest seems to be the way to get elected to high office. Then again, maybe it’s more honest — at least we know that these so-called representatives are only ever going to represent themselves.

#6 
Written By Julia on April 29th, 2009 @ 8:26 am
Phil

Jacob, I couldn’t agree more, from the aspect of Streeting and the aspect of Robinson rent. I fully expect they’d do the same this though, and every year in the process, both in Robinson and in NUS. Streeting has always been more interested in making his name known than for sensibly representing the majority.

Marty Kauffman, I think you’re wrong. On pretty much every one of your points! (sorry)
Fundamentally, the point of a strike is to be on strike. People in burning houses ARE expected to support striking firefighters, and it is the job of the Armed Forces to take up the mantle when our Emergency services go on strike. They are doing just that: Servicing the public. It is the role of the forces to support the public whenever they’re needed. In fact, I think your firefighting example could not be a worse one given that firefighters more often than not are retained rather than employed full time, especially in the countryside, and the vast majority of the local community is fully behind whatever action the firefighters deem to be appropriate. I should know, coming from a small village community where my grandfather, along with various other community figures I knew, were, and still are, retained firefighters. Anway, this argument aside, and hopefully back to the point of the discussion…

Students are bargaining chips in the argument of lecturer’s job security and pay disputes. What you appear to be suggesting is that the government and/or universities should just say no to any sort of pay rise, no matter what bargaining methods they try. I empathise with the lecturers, as it is clear to see how much more student debt there is in the last four years, whilst the average pay of the lecturer (he who does the most teaching) has not risen to anywhere near the same level. I think it is fundamentally wrong for the universities as a system to continue to take tuition fees etc if the money coming in is not to be passed on to those who are doing the teaching. That said, the very best of university lecturers are not in it for money, more for the pursuit of academic intelligence, and for the buzz it gives them to pass on and nurture their knowledge in the next generation. Let’s face it – there are very well paid jobs out there for those with a PhD in whichever field that PhD is.

I think it’s a very shallow counter-argument to attack the writer on his background, when I don’t imagine you understand his plight. Dan points this out in the comments above also. I, too, met the writer at university, and have kept in touch, and know some of the difficulties he had as a recent graduate trying to find a job. Even with a first class degree from Cambridge. Yes, the recession is making it more difficult for graduates as a whole, but the jobs are there if you look hard enough, there are just more applicants for each job. I am graduating this year, and I am at Cambridge, and I have had to pay the £3145 p.a. for tuition fees. In addition, I’ve had a further £3450 in college bills per year, and at the end of this I’ve managed without any financial parental support, and without a part time job. Yes I’m in substantial debt, but was it worth it? Absolutely. I expect to start a graduate job in September on a comfortable salary, which I wouldn’t have without my degree. I think if you’re trying to lay blaim as to the state of the higher education system then you have to blame the government for its introduction of top up fees.

University lecturers have to strike at this time of the year because they get the most media coverage, and it is only with the support of the public and the media that a sensible and advantageous deal can be struck.

Your shallow sense of understanding of your contemporaries will lead you to unemployment, not your educational or academic standards, or your level of debt, or indeed your inability to argue a coherent argument that shapes anything beyond immature ramblings.

#7 
Written By Phil on May 4th, 2009 @ 8:43 pm
Hooded Hoodlum

Some of the comments on here are really misinformed. Do they really believe that lecturers want to withdraw education? If the lecturers are on strike they should go to the library and read a book, that is what higher education is about, initiative and doing things for yourself.

The fight by UCU is mutually supportive of student rights. It is not, as many of the comments claim, about wanting an 8% pay rise, it is about the fact that 2/3 of unis are going to cut staff, this will adversely affect the education of students for years to come. Streeting is too cowardly to oppose the thatcherite brown government. When cuts in funding were announced he should have immmediately put plans in progress or at least sounded out possibilities for general student action against the government. He has clearly betrayed the students on this matter as he has done before, by agreeing to the introduction of top up fees. What a joke that this man claims to represent the student population.

#8 
Written By Hooded Hoodlum on May 6th, 2009 @ 8:52 am
Will Brambley

Dan, there are a couple of points you raise I want to address:

“2. The ‘money could be better spent’ argument is a red herring. The context is funding cuts across Higher Education, not a pot from which greedy lecturers are demanding more pay.”

There is always an argument of whether money could be better spent. Even if they poured vastly more into higher education, they’d still be an argument of how it would be best to spend that money. Increasing the pot to higher education automatically either decreases public spending elsewhere or raises borrowing. Both of these things may be good, but it does show that the argument is not a red herring.

“3. The ‘using students as bargaining chips’ argument is no different from the usual attacks on strikers that they are inconveniencing the public, and should be treated with the same contempt. Everyone has the right to withdraw their labour, full stop.”

The issue I have is not whether people have a right to withdraw their labour, it’s whether their jobs are legally protected while they withdraw their labour. While I’m a social democrat, I believe in an underlying market economy. Part of that is that in accepting a job both sides can negociate and come to a mutually acceptable decision. Unions have a clear benefit where an employer is the sole employer in that area or field and thus can artificially keep wages low, though this is a slightly different argument than the right to withdraw your labour. Unless there’s a clear imbalance of power, I think the same rules should apply to both sides – if one side can withdraw their labour the other can withdraw their salary and job. Even given current pay, there are lots of people who want to become lecturers and there is clear competition between universities for the best academics. I wonder how it is in society’s best interests to have lecturers striking for better pay considering this?

And yes, this is the usual argument against strikes. They do inconvenience people and it’s up to those people whether they support them. I absolutely don’t agree with Phil’s comment “People in burning houses ARE expected to support striking firefighters”, as I think it’s up to those people what they support. I’m not saying Streeting speaks for all students, but if this went to ballot, I’m not sure which side students would be on. Is there any evidence showing how students feel about striking lecturers?

Phil:

Despite your comments at the bottom about his “inability to argue a coherent argument”, you make a couple of failings yourself. Firstly by trying to ascribe a view to him that he did not espouse:

“What you appear to be suggesting is that the government and/or universities should just say no to any sort of pay rise, no matter what bargaining methods they try.”

And then say at the bottom:

“Your shallow sense of understanding of your contemporaries”

Are you so sure your contemporaries agree with you and are pro-strike for lecturers?

I’d also attack the main reasoning I see in your argument:

“I empathise with the lecturers, as it is clear to see how much more student debt there is in the last four years, whilst the average pay of the lecturer (he who does the most teaching) has not risen to anywhere near the same level. I think it is fundamentally wrong for the universities as a system to continue to take tuition fees etc if the money coming in is not to be passed on to those who are doing the teaching.”

I’d ask where you think the money is going? The answer is there isn’t extra funding – spending per student has hardly risen (after a long, steady decline since the 60s and 70s). The use of fees is to pay for expanding higher education.

As for pay keeping up with student debt, the same is true of all graduate jobs. However this was because the old system was incredibly generous to students, providing an education that (on average) vastly raises salary for comparitively little money. If the pay of graduate jobs had kept up with student debt, we’d have a situation where by getting into £20 or so of debt you could have an average graduate job paying £50k+.

To me, the key comes back to the quality of the education – how much do you needs to spend to get really good people going into academia? You seem to suggest that whatever gets lecturers paid more is good, that the strikes are a worthwhile price to pay. I’d ask what you think lecturers should be earning and how society and the education system benefits by paying them significantly more? I’m not arguing it doesn’t, I just think there’s a careful balance between paying enough to ensure good people want to do the job and making the best use of public money. There comes a point when the money could be better spent on the hordes of other worthwhile things the government spends money on.

To summarise, this comes down to two fundamental questions to me:
1) How much should lecturers be paid? This, I believe, needs to be decided by seeing how much you need to pay to ensure really good people applying, while ensuring you make best use of public money.
2) What place does industrial action have in deciding this? Personally, I feel the comptition for good academics means there is a pretty good balance between the university and the lecturer when it comes to negotiating on pay. The clearest signal of lecturers being paid too-little would be a slowing of the number of good candidates who want to go into it or an exodus of people from it. I may have missed a gross inequality of power here, but I don’t see why industrial action is needed or helpful in answering the first question.

#9 
Written By Will Brambley on May 27th, 2009 @ 2:58 am
Will Brambley

Aggg, why won’t it let me format the damn posts properly?!

#10 
Written By Will Brambley on May 27th, 2009 @ 3:01 am

Marty Kauffman can get right the hell back down off that high horse. I too paid through the nose for my education – but it is students who will suffer if NUS officials go around thumbing their nose at UCU. Concerted action between the two groups is the only way to get any sort of change in education from the ground up.

If NUS and UCU had worked together to fight plans for top-up fees in the first place, we’d not be having this conversation. Similarly if the two had worked together to propose the comprehensive reform which third level education radically needs – a matter which stretches so far beyond merely the amount of money coming in – we also wouldn’t be in this mess.

But they didn’t. And why? Because the people who climb to the top of the NUS shitheap are shills.

Superb article, Jacob.

#11 
Written By Dave Semple on September 1st, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

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