As the full implications of the government’s plans for universities become clear, university staff are gearing up for a national fight over pensions, and local disputes over job cuts.
In the pre-92 universities, members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) have voted for both strikes (58% in favour) and action short (77% in favour) in a row over cuts to pension provision. From 1 October their existing final salary scheme will be closed to new members and replaced by a much inferior career average scheme; members of the old scheme will see contributions rise and benefits fall. Post-92 staff, covered by the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, have a live ballot for action to continue.
The increase in pension contributions will more than swallow up the miserly £150 flat-rate pay rise offered this year. (As we go to press, the result of the consultative ballot on that offer is about to be announced.) Whether the White Paper plans can be stopped is closely related to the outcome of the current UCU dispute over pensions. If university staff put up a serious fight there, that will make a real difference to the prospects of defeating the White Paper proposals.
One of the implications of the White Paper is a serious threat to national pay bargaining. For some time it has been allowed to fray around the edges: different institutions start employees at higher or lower points on the scale, and professors have never been covered anyway. The White Paper — with its two-tier system of “AAB” and “£7.5k” institutions — will only make that worse.
Already this year, high-ranking Imperial College, outside the bargaining system, has offered its staff £500 or 2% (whichever is greater). But at South Bank, also outside the national scheme, staff have not even had the minimal 0.5% and 0.4% rises agreed in earlier rounds of national negotiations. As some colleges vie to recruit star staff in the hope of attracting star students, and others rush to the bottom, the pressure to break with national bargaining will be high.
Increased marketisation of higher education brings with it the threat of redundancies as university managements prepare for wholesale closures of courses that can’t be filled at the new fee levels. UCU is balloting over up to 300 redundancies at Middlesex University, but the old universities are not immune: Birmingham is looking at 200 job cuts between now and 2014, for example, and the Classics Department at Royal Holloway is threatened with closure.
Many universities have an effective recruitment freeze, and depend on hourly-paid and fixed-term contract staff to continue teaching. The permanent staff who remain have soaring workloads and it is common to hear that class sizes have doubled in the past decade. Now, outside Oxbridge, few tutorial groups are smaller than ten, and at new universities groups of 16-18 are not uncommon. While the 1960s expansion of universities meant new institutions — and new jobs — the 1990s expansion was growth on the cheap.
Staff will also suffer in a university system where students are transformed into consumers. There is no room in the White Paper for the idea that higher education might be a collaborative process involving student and tutor working and learning together. Instead it is to be a commodity: the student will pay and the tutor deliver. And students paying £9,000 a year will be ever more demanding of good results.
The pernicious culture of US universities, where staff regularly deal with laments that “my parents aren’t paying for me to get a C” and where managers give informal guidance that “we don’t fail students on this module,” will be transplanted here. There will be increasing pressure to design courses in the interests of market demand — as opposed to intellectual coherence.
The full fall-out of the White Paper reforms is, as yet, hard to predict. It seems likely that as well as the obvious impact on teaching, there will be university mergers and take-overs, increased outsourcing of “back-office” functions, and more collaboration between institutions. The White Paper says nothing about postgraduate study or research: there is great uncertainty about what will happen in those fields.
The bottom line is that a greater role for markets in the university system will inevitably mean less job security, a diversion of resources away from teaching and into management, and a model of education where opportunities for study are determined by what is “financially viable” rather than by intellectual curiosity.