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Northumbria lecturers forced to strike
"UNIVERSITY MANAGEMENT are acting like 19th century industrial capitalists using draconian strike breaking tactics" a geography lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle told the socialist. The lecturer wanted to remain nameless for fear of further management intimidation but explained that some members of the teaching staff union NATFHE have had 100% of their pay withheld by management. This is their reaction to the industrial action short of strike over both a national pay deal and local jobs and conditions.
In response to this lock-out, at a packed mass meeting on 12 May, lecturers voted unanimously for continuous and indefinite strike action. The strike could start on 23 May.
"Support for industrial action at Northumbria has been very strong, particularly since the management adopted these aggressive tactics of locking staff out without pay for 'partial performance'. In the geography department, 100% of staff are behind the action, five members are facing the threat of losing 100% of their pay if they don't meet the deadline for submitting a first year exam paper on 18 May.
"It has become clear however that the management are prepared to go to any lengths to break the strike. They are dispensing with their own quality controls and approving exam papers which have not been approved or set by the staff teaching the course and don't even accurately address the content of the course.
"The strike at Northumbria is not only about pay but about jobs, conditions and opposing the privatisation of higher education. Five redundancies are planned for the English Language Centre and eight more positions are being downgraded. All this is occurring alongside the prospect of the privatisation of a significant aspects of the English Language Centre's work to a company which has links with the Daily Mail.
"The lecturers who are on strike are asking for no more than was promised by Blair when he blackmailed his backbenchers into passing the bill introducing tuition and top-up fees. Blair promised that at least 30% of the additional income generated should be used for lecturers' pay.
"The lecturers are asking for no more than what vice-chancellors have paid themselves in rises over the last three years. The cost of basic senior management at Northumbria has risen by around £300,000 over the last three years. This is more than 100% and way more than enough to pay for the salaries of the five staff facing redundancy!
"In emails sent to staff and students, Kel Fidler, the Vice Chancellor, has been more than economical with the truth about additional income at the university, claiming there aren't even enough funds to meet the 12.6% pay offer.
"Fidler's office estimates that the amount of money needed to meet the pay claim would be £16.58million, the additional income generated by top-up fees bringing in £20 million and scholarships paying out £8 million, costing Northumbria £4 million more than is generated by the additional income. This means that the pay claim would be using 81% of the additional income from top-up fees, not the 33% NATFHE claim they want. However the university currently has over 13,000 full time undergraduate students - next year a third of these will be paying additional fees, two thirds will pay extra fees the year after and all students will pay the year after that, potentially bringing in a total of nearly £50 million not £20 million.
"Staff have been outraged by the claims in the Vice Chancellor's communications suggesting that they don't care about the students and are carrying out strike action designed to harm them. This is not the case and unlike the Vice Chancellor and members of the executive, lecturers are on the front line every working day dealing with students and their problems, as well as guiding them through their academic programmes to the point of graduation."
Some students have been worried by the strike action, largely due to a lack of information surrounding the dispute, exacerbated by the rotten local students' union who are 'actively backing the withholding of pay'.
This is in no way helping to resolve the dispute. The damage suffered by students failing to graduate would be small, lecturers have already offered to contact individual employers or institutions with provisional grades where they are needed for students applying for jobs or further education. The only people to suffer from the postponing of graduation through the marking boycott would be the university management, who set a high priority and invest time and money in the high-profile ceremony surrounding graduations.
Although Northumbria is one of only two universities where pay has been withheld, plenty of other universities have employed underhand methods, such as getting PhD students to mark exam papers or drafting in professionals, in subjects such as law and medicine, to mark dissertations. This is against their own quality practice just to ensure that the public humiliation of cancelling graduations can be avoided.
NATFHE members at Northumbria have unanimously voted to take continuous and indefinite strike action in response to the lockout of members instigated by senior managers. The union will be serving notice on the employer that unless the lockout is lifted within ten days, NATFHE members at Northumbria University will be on indefinite strike.
University workers and students must understand that these attacks on wages and conditions are part and parcel of the same neo-liberal agenda for education that forced top-up and tuition fees upon us. The National Union of Students, nationally and locally, must give full support to NATFHE and AUT members in struggle. This dispute will have direct consequences on the accessibility and quality of education.
- Support the AUT and NATFHE pay claim!
- No to the marketisation of higher education!
- No to tuition and top-up fees!
- For a proper, fully funded system of higher education with quality pay for workers, from direct government funding!
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