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24 hours in HE: Boycott


Ivory Tower: we return to our fly-on-the-wall documentary during exam time

Narrator: Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, is one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. We are approaching the end of another academic year, but all is not well in higher education after a term interrupted by industrial action. Vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is in reflective mood.

Sir Malcolm: It’s all about the students, of course. We might have fewer of them than we used to, thanks to the removal of the numbers cap. I hold my hand up and say I was all for it at the time. I think I even sat on a sub-committee at Universities UK, where we agreed to push the Treasury to lift the lid on student numbers. I think that is why I was nominated for my knighthood. Either that or the donations to the Conservative Party and being the only vice-chancellor to campaign to leave the EU—so, sue me. Some people round here said at the time, what the hell are you doing? Don’t you see that the Russell Group place down the road is just going to hoover up all your students? Hindsight is a wonderful thing; back then there was no Office for Students and George Osborne was in the Treasury. Now he wants to whack more tax on orange juice, so who could see that coming?

Anyway, although we might have fewer students than we did back then, the ones we have left still take precedence. That’s why I’ve decided to lay down the law over this marking and assessment boycott. We’ve double-checked with our lawyers—well, we don’t actually have a legal department anymore, they went in the last round of cuts. Instead we have a paralegal called Jenny who works on a Tuesday and Thursday. Jenny reckons we are on safe ground if everyone else is doing it. That’s why we’ll be docking staff 100 per cent of their pay if they refuse to mark exam scripts.

It’s not something I want to do, obviously, but you have to think of the students. Their future prospects will be blighted if I don’t dock staff 100 per cent of their pay. It’s just logic, really. I hope the students appreciate the time it takes for highly skilled HR professionals to ask all staff whether they are participating in this industrial action, and for our payroll team to spend time not paying people. You’ve got to set an example. If staff don’t get paid in June, they’ll soon be back to mark exam scripts—not sure if we still do exams actually. A lot of that sort of thing went when we were all teaching on Zoom. Not me, obviously; I haven’t been in a classroom for thirty years, couldn’t afford the wage cut.

It’s really a win-win for us. We’ve crunched the numbers and we reckon that if we dock the wages of all the staff in psychology and half of the engineering school, then we would save enough money to be able to offer a one-off lump sum of £50 to everyone else. We gave the admin staff a £50 voucher for Lidl to help with the cost of living crisis, so it’s only right that we do the same for the boffins. I’m not even sure they have exams in psychology; I think they just scan their brains or something. Like I say, it’s all about the students.

Narrator: Sir Malcolm isn’t the only one to have been crunching the numbers. Finance director Wayne Cartwright has been meeting with the university’s auditors.

Wayne: It’s terrifying—that’s the only word for it. Shocking would be another, dismal would be one too. In fact, there might be quite a few words you could use. But we are not alone. Did you see the data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency? They are all making a loss, even the Russell Group place down the road that’s got all our students. I say students, I prefer the term “invoiceable community” because it’s not all about learning. In fact, little of what we do here has anything to do with learning—that’s the least of our problems.

Sure, there is the staff wage bill but more than half of those are administrators, and they are much cheaper than academics. We’ve managed to squeeze the budget on actual teaching staff dramatically. Well, perhaps not dramatically. We did close the drama department. But now whenever I sit in a spring planning meeting with a head of school and they come up with their grandiose staffing plans, we have a protocol. I say to them, “Professors? Why do you need a professor when a Reader is just as good. But it’s far better to grow our own talent so think about some lecturers instead, and while you think about it have some part-time hours instead”. Works every time. Soon we’ll be able to get the academic head count down to about 25 per cent of the payroll. It’s going to help no end with our application for an Investors in People award.

But still we are losing money. I might as well tell you since Hesa make all the stats public anyway, but this year we look like we are going to run a deficit of around ten million pounds. That’s after you’ve adjusted for pension liabilities. The only people round here who are in the Universities Superannuation Scheme are me and the VC, so that doesn’t count really. No, the ten million is actual hard cash. A lot of that is the energy bill. Hopefully, that will come down now that it’s May and we’ve switched off all the radiators, and taken out all the light bulbs, and turned off all the servers. If the marking boycott goes ahead, we should be able to switch off that big buzzy magnet thing in psychology—costs a fortune to run. What are they doing, measuring brain waves or something?

Narrator: Meanwhile on the shop floor, not everyone is happy with management’s plans to dock wages. Union rep Barbara Harding has been talking to members.

Barbara: Stop right there! Obviously you can’t take a camera into a branch meeting. The inner workings of union democracy are sacred. Charlie from Geography and me have just been counting the votes and staff opinion is unanimous—all five of them voted for the marking and assessment boycott. You’ve got to think of the students, haven’t you. Their futures will be blighted if we don’t take this action and refuse to mark their scripts.

Not me, obviously. As a full-time union rep I’ve been bought out of teaching for the last ten years—couldn’t stand it myself. But the others are very clear on this. Margaret in Psychology says she won’t be doing any marking. I think they mostly assess their students via a scan of the brains now or something. Fred in engineering says he doesn’t have any undergraduates this year and is only teaching his PhD students, but he’s all for staff taking action sort of a strike over the marking boycott, and he’ll send a stiffly worded letter to the VC if he tries to dock anyone’s pay over it. The other three members work in the library so it doesn’t really affect them.

It’s just vindictive bully-boy tactics from management. They’ve offered us nothing. Apart from the 5 to 8 per cent back-dated to February and restoring pension benefits—not that any of us round here have got a USS pension apart from the VC and the director of finance. I wouldn’t even mind a £50 Lidl voucher—I’d mark some exam scripts for that. And look, don’t even get me started on Sir Kier bloody Starmer. That’s another sickening betrayal, and now he’s off to the Coronation to swear allegiance to the King, what does he think he is, a knight or something? Oh wait, hold on, can we film that bit again?

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