By Guo Yingjian
UK Lecturers on Strike
Now, the strike of British college lecturers is ongoing vigorously, which has swept the entire Britain. In January, the beginning of 2018, the negotiation between two organizations broke down. On Feb. 22, over 40,000 college lecturers from more than 60 universities or colleges in Britain, including the most famous and the oldest Cambridge University and Oxford University walked out to go on the largest scale strike ever in British History.
It is not a strike for just one or several days. The strike organizer announced that the strike would go on continuously from the day of Feb. 22 to March 16, which amounts 23 days in total duration. The strategy for the strike is 3 days in the first week, 4 days in the second week and 5 days in the third week after the beginning of the strike, which takes 14 working days altogether.
This not only impacts the old British Empire but also becomes a focus event concerned by many media in the world. Some international educational organizations and labor unions, including those from Germany, Argentina, USA, Canada and Australia expressed their strong wish to support British college lecturers.
The strike is still ongoing while I am writing this article today. The grand climax of the strike will be from March 12 to March 16 in the next week when they will go on strike for a week.
Actually, it is the struggle between the two organizations in Britain behind the strike of college lecturers. One is Universities UK (abbreviated as UUK in the following) which represents the administrators of universities in Britain and governs 350 British universities and colleges; and the other is The University and College Union (abbreviated as UCU in the following) which represents the interest of most lecturers and is also the organizer of the strike. UCU is a huge organization with the nature of a labor union which has more than 110,000 lecturers, employees, scholars and postgraduates in British universities and colleges as its members. It is also the largest higher education organization ever in the world.
People may not know that UUK and UCU had already negotiated for more than one year. Unfortunately, the negotiation finally broke down and triggered the strike.
UUK vs. UCU
In fact, the cause of the strike is very simple. It is the change of a pension scheme called USS (the Universities Superannuation Scheme) concerning the vital interests of college lecturers.
British media reported that UUK considered that due to the severe financial deficit of the pension scheme, they proposed to change a defined benefit scheme working currently to a defined contribution scheme. The difference between the two schemes is that the defined benefit means an income the college shall guarantee for the lecturers to gain at their retirement while the latter is to invest some pension to be distributed to the lecturers monthly in the stock market and to use the reaped profit in the pension contribution in the future. In other words, the former means that both the lecturers and the colleges take the risk while the latter means that the risk shall be taken by the lecturers only.
In the view of UUK, it is necessary to change the pension scheme. But UCU which represents the interests of most lecturers affirmatively expressed that the intention of any attempt to change USS is to deprive the existing pension from the lecturers because the practice after the change is not only greatly risky but also has the possibility to shrink the amount of the pension. As calculated, if the pension enters the stock market, each lecturer may lose up to £10,000 each year in pension, possibly over £200,000 by retirement, which is naturally unacceptable for all college lecturers.
Here it is necessary to explain “college lecturers” in this strike. If we pay a little attention, the word “lecturer” is applied as the “teacher” in this British teacher strike. The series of college teachers in British higher education are classified in bottom-up order as Teaching Fellow, Research Fellow, Lecturer A, Lecturer B, Senior Lecturer or Reader, Full Professor. Among the six classes, Teaching Fellow and Research Fellow are equivalent to teaching assistant in China and USA; Lecturer A and Lecturer B are both lecturer as the same as in China; the major difference for the sub-classes above is just in wage income; Senior Lecturer or Reader and Full Professor are equivalent to associate professor and full professor in Chinese and American education systems. In this series, although Britain has a different higher education system and Britain has neither American “tenure” nor Chinese “tenure”, for the lecturers as the largest group, if they are promoted to the series of “lecturers”, they have a permanent job and generally they shall sign a long term labor contract with the college, which means they are free from worry.
It shows that undoubtedly, the pension scheme affects the largest group in British universities and colleges, that is, it involves the vast majority of teachers in more than 60 universities and colleges in Britain. Certainly, other staff also participated in the strike, including employees, postgraduates, etc. Its popularity is evident.
As both UUK and UCU refused to make concession, so UCU took a vote to go on strike and an overwhelming majority of college lecturers voted for this decision.
Deeper Roots of the Strike
Superficially, the cause of the strike is the pension scheme for the lecturers, but actually there is a deeper cause and a more incisive social background. The strike is also a chain reaction triggered by Brexit.
First, the high income of officers in universities and colleges astonishes the common people. British media has kept on repeating the report at great length for a long time that administrative officers including the president have astonishingly high annual salary and the universities and colleges need to pay some of their daily expenses. For example, after Dame Glynis Breakwell, the president of University of Bath was disclosed that his annual income is as high as £468,000 (nearly RMB 4 million), he agreed to resign the occupation of president. What is more unexpected is that the income of Bill Galvin, the CEO responsible for USS in this year has increased by 17% so that his salary has increased from £484,000 to £566,000. It was reported that the income of two other officers is even more than £1 million.
Moreover, the annual income of lecturers is shrinking over time and is so low that it irritates the lecturers. Apart from the protest against the change of pension, the lecturers involved in the strike are also discontented with their shrinking salary since 2009. According to a report, the salary of a British lecturer has decreased by 15% from 2009 to now. Not merely, the salary of lecturers is shrinking. Worse still, the income of each sector in British society seems to be sliding down. In the British national health system, the income of the workers has reduced by £2000 in average in the past 7 years while the income of the ambulance drivers has decreased by £5,286.
Furthermore, the college graduates are either unemployed or burdened with a large debt. People are skeptical about the value of a university or a college. In Britain, many students have a heavy debt of up to £50,000 upon their graduation. Therefore, for many years, people are discussing on the media all the time about what’s the value of a college diploma in today’s higher education.
Without comparison, there is no harm. The tuition keeps surging up, the salary of officers are increasing while the salary of lecturers are decreasing continuously. Now, the pension scheme may also be changed and may cause a huge loss. Facing such reality, British lecturers showed unprecedented unity and collaboration. It was reported that more than 88% of college lecturers voted for the strike and 92% of college staff were calling for the strike, and even 100% of the lecturers from a university voted for the strike.
UK Higher Education：Three Defects
People see the defects of Britain such an advanced nation of higher education from the strike. Since 1990s, unprecedented radical changes have been made in British higher education. In terms of its advantages, the higher education has entered the era of popularization where everyone has access to a university or a college. But in the perspective of the lecturers’ strike, the radical changes make people see three defects of British higher education.
First, higher education has entered the commercialization era. Originally, a college student in Britain didn’t have to pay tuition. If his or her family is in poverty, he or she can get grants from local and central governments to balance the living expense. But in the end of the 20th
century, Tony Blair’s administration changed the situation. Beginning from 1998, the government has permitted universities and colleges to charge the tuition of £1,000. In 2004, the tuition rose up to £3,000. In 2010, the figure had surged up by three times as £9,000. From 1992 to 2016, British college students had doubled several times and the number had increased to 1,870,000 from less than 1 million in the past. Nearly all British universities and colleges have changed to commercialize in such a background. The commercialization of higher education is very severe.
Second, the non-professionalism of the faculty is severe. The growth of the number of students naturally leads to the growth of the number of teachers. Due to the commercialization tendency of higher education, when the faculty cannot meet the demands, the way for operating a factory is taken and part-time lecturers are hired so that it can not only deal with the lack of lecturers for some courses but also release the inner enrollment and burden of universities and colleges. Therefore, the major growth of lecturers is from those non-full-time and so-called “atypical” lecturers who do not sign a permanent labor contract.
It is reported that the number of “atypical” lecturers has increased to 75,000 in the recent two decades. According to statistics in 1999, only 15% of lecturers were part-time in Britain, and there was no “atypical” lecturer. But in 2016, the number of part-time lecturers increased dramatically to a quarter of the total number of lecturers, and the portion of “atypical” lecturers was even more than a quarter. Now there is an evidence that the seminar courses for most freshmen and sophomores are not taught by full-time lecturers but by postgraduates in many British universities and colleges. These postgraduates have no sense of security for their future.
Third, the disengagement of the higher education system and the society intensifies social contradictions. Higher education is to cultivate the people and to expect the people it has cultivated can serve the society better. But now, the young generation has discovered that they have to pay high tuition for the opportunity to get higher education, but in the future, they will see that either they can’t find a job or the job is not stable or its working condition and compensation is not satisfactory. So, it is not unexpected why the strike can be supported by so many people.
Outcome of the Strike
In the West, it is common to organize a strike, a protest and a demonstration for the interests of an industry. It is no exception in higher education. The previous strike of British lecturers was dated back to October 2013 when the teachers had stopped teaching for one day. Further ahead, in 2006, lecturers stopped examination and refused to rate for the students so as to request for increasing salary. But this protest is much more serious than the previous ones in terms of both scale and consequence.
Challenged by such a large scale of demonstration and boycott, many circles of the society inside and outside of universities and colleges have sufficiently realized the severity of such an incident and its great impact on college students and higher education. According to the declaration of UCU, if their appeal cannot be realized, the strike may go on or even at the price of refusing final examination and graduation for the students.
Sam Gyimah, the State Minister of British Colleges and Science appealed that both UUK and UCU shall come back to the negotiation table. He considered that such a strike had a big impact on students. He has also communicated and discussed with both parties of the negotiation. He wished that UUK and UCU could consider the students and avoid the incident to expand. Stephen Toope, Chancellor of Cambridge University also made a statement of his attitude and required both UUK and UCU to return to the negotiation table. He also said, the current can’t go further.
Sally Hunt, the Secretary General of UCU showed her welcome to such statement. “We also insist that such a strike can’t go on, and hope that both parties can return to the negotiation table to solve the current disputes,” she said.
For college lecturers strike is unlike the strike in other industries, the most influenced are a great majority of students, even if they are not the most direct victims. This is a big group. According to British media, more than 1 million students were deeply influenced by the strike.
In general, students’ organizations support the strike. The media reported that National Union of Students (abbreviated as NUS) stated that they supported the lecturers strike. The reason why they support the lecturers strike is that they worry that the loss of the lecturers’ benefits may naturally impact the working enthusiasm of their lecturers and influence the employment of excellent lecturers and the stability of the faculty and cause other issues as well. A survey shows that most students support the lecturers. About 61% of the students support the lecturers to boycott, and up to 50% of the students criticize the college administrators and consider that it is the dispute between the college presidents and the lecturers that caused the strike in education.
But there are also many people who worry about the strike, including those parents who care about their children. A lot of students have their concerns about the negative effects of the strike on them. It is now the spring semester when the graduation period is also coming in colleges. Except for the worries about their daily lectures and examination, many students, especially the graduates, concern more about the big issue of their graduation.
In my opinion, a deeper issue is that whatever happens, the interests of the students will have a great loss. If the college lecturers win finally, then they shall have heartfelt thanks to the great support of their students. For the universities and colleges, whether they win or not, they shall thank their students because many students just request for the compensation during the strike and they haven’t applied their rights as consumers to ask them for returning all the tuition by the reason that they haven’t gotten the educational value they have purchased.
One issue being neglected is that the people shall listen to the voice of the interested victim -- the student during the struggle between the college administrators and the college lecturers. Such a strike is not just a struggle between UUK and UCU. Both sides shall be fully aware of their responsibilities for the students. Without awareness of this point, both parties in the struggle may be abandoned by the students in the future.
What We Can Learn from the Strike?
In the current situation, as there are still big disputes between UUK and UCU, the strike will come out on time and continue to come. Then, how will the struggle be ended? How shall people solve the problem fundamentally? In my view, the root cause is over-commercialization of higher education. The force shall be targeted at how to consider and treat the students and the lecturers.
I think that the circle of higher education shall have a clear-cut stand against over-commercialization and fully marketing of higher education. Although the commercialization tendency and direction of universities and colleges are inevitable in the commercialized age and society, the administrators, the scholars, the lecturers and the students shall keep alert at any time to prevent the commercialization thinking and management mode from entering and occupying the campuses. As it were that universities and colleges are commercialized, it may change the nature of higher education to some extent and there will be even more negative effects of over-commercialization on both the lecturers and students.
Now people would easily consider the students as consumers. Many students also consider themselves as consumers. Just imagine that once the students have become consumers, then the lecturers are just knowledge traders and the universities and colleges are just a fair trade market. This point is embodied in the college lecturer strike. Many students claim for compensation and many universities and colleges agree to compensate for the loss of the students and pay back some expenses. But does it solve the real problem? Can the loss of the students be offset if they receive the compensation? Do the universities and colleges not need to rethink the cause of the strike and not feel sorry for this to the students and the society if they pay back some tuition? If the unity is important for a garment, then education is more like an indivisible unity. We know that even in a commercialized society, if someone buys a garment and finds damage somewhere on it, he will definitely choose to return the garment but not accept some compensation. For higher education, how could compensation and the reception of compensation be able to the real problem hidden inside it?
On the other hand, the lecturers shall not consider themselves or be considered as knowledge traders, or consider themselves as employees in a certain industry. In my view, today is the age of student orientation. If people have taken the students as consumers or the students consider themselves as consumers, then the social status of the lecturers are lowered down and their economical benefit is not high enough. It has been nearly an unquestionable fact that the relationship between the lecturer and the student has become a buyer-seller relationship. Therefore, in the perspective of college administrators, they shall really care about the interests of the lecturers and pay attention to the personal development of the lecturers. Now it is very common in the world that on one hand, the number of the students are increasing dramatically and the tuition is skyrocketing, but on the other hand, a lot of luxurious stadiums, teaching buildings and latest teaching attachments are built in most universities and colleges, but the vital interests of the lecturers are always neglected and their salary and benefits are declining. This contradiction will break out one day sooner or later.
The British college lecturer strike gives us a warning:
A lecturer is a special profession whose responsibility is not an operation of an ordinary worker in a section of a workshop. Even in the severely commercialized society, we shall not forget that the vocation of a teacher is to cultivate people. The campuses of universities and colleges are holy and pure for they are the platform for cultivating useful talents for the society in the future.
[The author is a Special Term Professor to “Distinguished Academics” and a PhD supervisor in Renmin University of China]
Translated by: LI Weijuan