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Lecturers continue the fight for decent pay
FROM 10-12 May, higher education union AUT held its last annual council (conference) before its merger with NATFHE to form the University and College Union, UCU.
Both existing unions are in dispute over pay in higher education, against the employers, UCEA, after pay increases promised from the money generated by 'top-up' fees failed to materialise.
On the Monday before the conference, the unions had correctly turned down a 'final' offer from UCEA. This rejection was backed unanimously by council, which gave an overwhelming mandate to continue the current boycott of student assessment.
Motions were passed that called to extend this to other forms of action short of a strike, such as management boycotts. A motion calling for a further one-day strike and national demonstration was referred to the executive, who only committed to sympathetic consideration of 'national demonstrative action'.
Good points were made in the debate about the timing and effectiveness of strike action and the difficulties of the current boycott, which 'goes against all our instincts' as educators and does hurt students.
There was a further suggestion that the money that would be lost through a one-day strike would be better levied from members to support staff facing pay cuts for taking part in the assessment boycott.
These are tactical issues but what cannot be denied is the urgency of taking some form of united action that can help ease the isolation of those taking part in the boycott. As a minimum, a national demonstration should be organised with AUT, NATFHE, the NUS and teachers' unions.
UCEA and behind them the New Labour government, are 100% to blame for any problems faced by students as a result of the assessment boycott. While council reaffirmed its opposition to tuition fees in a separate motion, it was noted that the new income from fees presented a 'once in a generation' opportunity to win a significant pay increase. University workers have seen their salaries decline from close to those of doctors to salaries below those of school teachers, who are underpaid themselves.
Attacks on higher education mirror those throughout the public sector. Unity between public-sector unions and the wider labour movement will be needed to force the government to back down.
There were discussions of wider issues, in particular the adoption of a policy on international boycotts following last year's proposed boycott of Israel. While some conservative elements in the union argued that we should not campaign on anything other than the interests of education workers, this was defeated. Positive examples of international solidarity came from motions condemning the occupation of Iraq and in solidarity with the Venezuelan people against US interference.
There was also a resounding call for disciplinary action against racist, sexist and homophobic lecturer Frank Ellis of Leeds University.
Socialist Party members distributed a conference bulletin and held a meeting in support of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party.
We intend to build on this to establish a base in the new union, where we will argue for a fighting strategy but also that the cuts, closures and privatisation seen in universities and colleges are an inevitable consequence of the capitalist system. Only the socialist transformation of society can provide education for all at the same time as decent pay and conditions for those who provide it.
Build students' support
KAT FLETCHER, president of the National Union of Students described the AUT's decision to continue to refuse to set exams as "extremely concerning".
She led an NUS delegation to the AUT conference, where the boycott was endorsed but added after the decision was reached: "NUS will continue to make the AUT aware of the damaging consequences of this policy and the disproportionate impact this aspect of the boycott is having on students."
NUS accept that the employers' refusal to negotiate for weeks is "one of the reasons students are suffering now". They say they are putting pressure on the employers to begin new negotiations. But it is clear that, in the face of such intransigent employers, it is in all students' interests to give full support to lecturers in dispute - as Socialist Students are doing around the country.
5 Jun Ken Douglas
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