Sunday 5 May 2013

Trades Unions and Education: Some fundamental questions

There is little doubt that the government's "reforms" of higher education have caused a terrible mess. The characteristics of the mess are confusion, competing agendas, loss of clarity of purpose and pockets of managerial opportunism which exploit all the distractions. It is a terrible situation for everyone. For staff, the threat to jobs which they had imagined would see them to a reasonably well-funded retirement mean that expectations dramatically have to readjust to the circumstances. Vice Chancellors find themselves in a catch-22 situation: I imagine that few of them in their ambitions for running a university would ever have forseen themselves having to disembowel their institutions in this manner (I'm grateful to a friend for this graphic description!). Whatever staff may think, this is an unenviable task. Faced with this, VCs have tended to react to the unpleasant job by surrounding themselves with (often sufficiently unpleasant) people to carry it through. There is little that is particular in this situation that distinguishes any one institution from any other: the pattern tends to be the same (as indeed it is in the corporate sector when faced with difficult choices).

The targets of cuts are academics. That's because they are very expensive. Their salaries used to be competitive because there was a market (supported by the state) for lecturers in Higher Education. But the state support has evaporated, the market disappeared, and individuals left on relatively high salaries (for the education sector as a whole) as a time of downward pressure on salaries generally and increasingly high unemployment. Moreover, salaries which used to be funded through general taxation, are now funded directly by the students themselves. This all leaves academics vulnerable, particularly as there is no shortage of young enthusiastic post-docs who are keen to get their first teaching experience for a fraction of the salary.

Faced with this, the Trades Unions are in a difficult situation. In traditional industries, Trades Unions represented the workers' interests by forming collectives whereby management couldn't bully individuals or make changes to working conditions by sleight of hand manoeuvres on the shop floor. The nature of the industrial situation within which collectives formed was that each individual was in themselves dispensible and that any individual could be replaced easily. The collective prevented the easy replacement of the individual by threatening a strike.

'Replacement' of individuals in such an individualised job as education is not the same as replacement in coal mining. In Universities particularly, each individual establishes their own market value through individual reputation, publication, project funding, etc. This means that the collective is never equal. Whilst the avowed intent of the collective is to protect the members' interests as a group, some members will inevitably see their interests served best by the disappearance of other members!

But in education, there is a further complication. Whilst the Union is meant to serve the members' interests, arguments for doing this will be based on 'protecting the future of education'. However, it would not follow that the future of education is best served by all the members keeping their jobs. By any logic, with tightened budgets, all members cannot possibly expect to keep their jobs (or at least their current salary levels). This sets up a contradiction: serving the members interests will put the future of education in a more perilous position, and indeed the future generation of students who will be left with the bill for protecting the members interests.

In terms of "protecting the future of education", management may well claim the higher ground, arguing that it is not for members of staff to profiteer from students, who will be beholden to debt for at least the next 20 years. They will argue that education has to be affordable, that technologies must be allowed to play their role in making learning and teaching efficient. All of these things stand to threaten the 'members interests'.

So, are Trades Unions in education about "Protecting their members' interests" or are they about "Protecting the  future of education"? Here we can ask "What if Trades Unions were specifically dedicated to protecting education? What would they do?"

The Union's strength is that it represents the voice of the staff. In an economic crisis, the dynamics of organisations are remarkably similar. Typically, management goes deaf. The classic recent case is the HBOS failure (see The fear of making the wrong decision creates the conditions for making the wrong decision. In situations like HBOS, management becomes increasingly allergic to criticism; it prefers to hears positive feedback from those close to it (in whose interests it is to provide positive feedback!!); it will actively avoid contact with those on the ground who know the  organisation better, and who might criticise current policy. These are the classic pathologies of communication in organisations in crisis.

Making the voice of the staff heard in these circumstances requires great skill. Shouting and berating management usually only stimulates the antibodies. What is needed is good teaching. The collective knowledge that the unions represent is vital to good decision-making. But it needs to be presented in a way which is unthreatening to those who will otherwise ignore it and make worse decisions. At the same time, a pedagogical approach can help in the other direction - for members of Unions to appreciate the gravity of the situation faced and the importance of careful positioning. Whatever suspicions exist concerning the probity of managerial conduct, it is unlikely ill-doing will be exposed through confrontation. And if there is wrong-doing, the logic upon which it is based can be properly inspected and shown to be counter-productive. It is in the interests of everyone that this is done carefully.

Most importantly, a pedagogical approach is precisely about "protecting the future of education". For it is with effective teaching and learning in the management of Universities, as with their practice and mission, that there is the guarantee of good decisions. And it is good decisions that will ultimately serve to protect the education system for future generations.


dkernohan said...

Where does the Student's Union stand on experienced vs new staff?

Mark Johnson said...

Good question! My guess is "it depends" - but perhaps more importantly, the student voice (the real one, not the crappy token 'student voice' which is a fob-off for the QAA or the NSS) also needs to be heard authentically at the top. I suspect the most authentic student voice most senior managers hear is from their own children...

Anonymous said...

An excellent piece, your points relating to the dilemma of staff involved in teaching are incredibly incisive, and I can only feel for anyone employed in HE in England today.

The situation of support staff is, I feel, rather different. Like the academics, they have been squeezed over recent years - at the same time their workload has increased to the point that it is no longer possible to offer even a "good" service, never mind the "high quality" service the prospectus often claims.
Experience of staff in Student support / Libraries / admin / cleaning roles is that they deal with MORE students on a day to day basis. This is regardless of what the institutions claim about student numbers decreasing - the situation on the frontline has become far busier, and far more stressful.
If a course or subject area is cut, it does not mean the support staff can be cut correspondingly, without severely affecting the services offered.
Which will affect feedback scores, recruitment, in turn affecting the economy of the town/city... the cycle repeats itself...

And - as you say - it's the workers in the "lower ranks" who know all this is happening. More to the point, they care more than those at the top about the students and their futures.

Unknown said...
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Mark Johnson said...

Yes, I agree - support staff are different. Unlike academics, they haven't suddenly found themselves on inflated salaries. Their importance has been consistently undervalued and they have suffered from unequal working conditions in comparison to academics. Yet they keep the places going!

The only advantage in not being paid too much is that they are also more employable in other institutions or outside education (particularly in technical support roles). Not surprisingly there is a high rate of mobility amongst support support staff which is adding to instability in institutions.

Of course, the only category of non-academic that does not fit into this category is 'the manager'. Like academics, they too are on (now) inflated salaries. Typically, they are held in place by allegiance to the leader. If the leader goes, they are done for! This suits the leader, of course. But it creates the conditions for managerial pathology.