To strike or not to strike?
As I remember them, lecturers’ strikes in Cambridge used to be faintly absurd affairs. When the “day of action” was called (it was only ever a single day) you would cancel your lectures and supervisions and re-arrange them for later in the week. You couldn’t let the students suffer.
On the day itself, you’d send a letter to the administration telling them you were on strike, so that they could dock your pay. After all, if you don’t have designated working-hours or working-place, it’s hard for the boss to know whether you’re on strike or not. Then you’d toddle off to the library for a solid day’s research, “work” in another sense.
The net result was a ghastly week of rearranged teaching squashed into all hours. You had lost a day’s pay and your employer (against whom you were supposed to be striking) had saved it. All in all, a pretty decisive own goal.
So is the current AUT “action short of a strike” – that is, the exam boycott – any more on target? I really don’t know.
University lecturers are not simply politically inept. They are caught in the dilemma of all public sector workers, without having quite the popular affection of fire-fighters or ambulance-crews. To be effective, industrial action has to hurt someone; gentlemanly strikes, as we’ve discovered, are useless. And unlike workers in manufacturing industries, who can at least dent their employers’ profits by withdrawing their labour, we have to pick on an innocent third party.
In this case, the students – and that’s where the extra dilemma comes in. These are for the most part young people we have got to know well over three or four years. We have fostered their aspirations and careers (even moulded them, we sometimes fancy). We have discussed their career choices and written perhaps scores of reference for them. We are almost as invested in their exam success as they are. The idea that they should not graduate in the usual way, simply because we won’t mark their exams, seems almost unthinkable.
An astute friend suggested yesterday that it would have been better to boycott admitting new undergraduates. At least we wouldn’t have become invested in them yet – and so it might have been easier to hold to a tough line.
The trouble is that the other side of the argument is powerful too. No one I know doubts that, on any reasonable scale of comparison, university teachers are dreadfully underpaid. A new lecturer with an first-class undergraduate degree and PhD is likely to earn below £30k -- a good bit less than the starting salary of many of the graduates they turn out, and about as much as 23 year-old police constable with perhaps four years post-school experience. And, so far as Cambridge is concerned, that’s in a town where two bed-roomed terraced houses in inconvenient locations can change hands for not much less than £300k (admittedly that’s bad news for the police constable too).
So there are conflicting goods here. It is one thing to follow your heart on behalf of the students you have. But you also have to think about your responsibility to the university’s future. How do you ensure that the next generation has the quality of university teachers it deserves? How can you sincerely encourage the very best students you’re teaching now to enter the profession? All that might mean sticking to your guns, even if it hurts.
My money is still, optimistically, on the dispute being settled before the main bulk of our exams begin – though we are very close to the wire now. At least in Cambridge, with exams set and some already sat, the absolute worst that can happen is that detailed results will be delayed. But for what it’s worth, no one I know is in bullish “boycott-happy” mood. The dons are no less uncomfortable with all this than the students.