AUT-NATFHE Strike Letter

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10 April 2006

Simon Felton
General Secretary
National Postgraduate Committee
The University of Birmingham Guild of Students (BUGS)
Edgbaston Park Road
B15 2TU

Dear Simon,

We are writing to you to explain why AUT and NATFHE members are currently taking industrial action which affects assessment.

As you are doubtless aware, university staff have become increasingly overworked and underpaid over the last two decades. In the last twenty years, salaries have fallen in value by around 40%. Since 1976, our workloads have increased by around 140%. No other profession in the UK has endured anything like this.

As you know, academics spend on average four vital earning years in postgraduate studies before they can apply for academic jobs. Most now endure years of short-term contracts, start on lower salaries and their earnings at the peak of their careers are lower than any other profession, including teachers, doctors, lawyers and other highly skilled professionals. This has a huge impact on the career expectations and on the lives of academic staff. It is hardly surprising that many leave the profession and those who stay are increasingly demoralised as workloads increase and they see no reward in pay.

We have waited twenty years for university Vice Chancellors to address this and they have consistently claimed that they would like to increase our pay if only they had the money to do so. Now, as you know, they have received the biggest injection of new funding for a generation. Universities are receiving more than £3.5 billion over the next three years in new funding, much of it levied through Top-up fees. When Vice Chancellors lobbied for these fees, they claimed that they wanted to spend that money on our pay. They told the Minister for Higher Education that at least a third of the new money should go on staff pay and conditions.

But Vice Chancellors are now refusing to spend this new money on pay. They have attempted to deny that they ever made this promise and to spread misinformation about the dispute among both our members and students. We have tried everything to persuade employers to honour their commitments, but without success. In the six months since we submitted our pay claim, we have seen nothing from the employers but prevarication and propaganda. That is why, in February, our members voted overwhelmingly to take strike action and to begin a continuous boycott of assessment.

In the latest developments, AUT and NATFHE were barred from negotiations with other unions on the 28th March. Having publicly announced that these meetings would contain an offer, the employers imposed a last-minute condition that the unions must call off the action before any offer would be made. AUT and NATFHE understandably refused to do this. The offer that emerged was for university staff to receive a derisory 6% over two years. This barely scrapes above inflation and certainly does nothing to address the long-term shortfall in academic pay. Consequently, the action must continue until the employers make a serious offer.

As dedicated education professionals, our members dislike having to take any action that affects their students. But the sad truth is that this action is the only means by which we can make Vice Chancellors listen to their own staff. The fact that the dispute has got this far should stand as a damning indictment of Vice Chancellors complacency and recklessness. We are faced with the grotesque spectacle of Vice Chancellors on huge salaries, commanding massive new income, gambling with your futures to avoid paying our members a decent wage.

We deeply regret having to take action that affects any students in any way. We are aware that postgraduate students pay high fees to undertake their courses. We are also aware that many postgraduate students undertake teaching work as hourly paid tutors or graduate teaching assistants on varieties of fractional contracts. We recognise that this action affects many of these students deeply. This is, for many, a vital and often the only source of income that supports their studies. We are aware that, for this reason, some of our Local Associations are looking at ways of mitigating the effects of the action on part-time and hourlypaid staff.

Others will be placed in the difficult position of being offered work to cover for their colleagues. We would request that, if you give guidance to your members, you would ask them not to undertake such work, although we do appreciate the difficulties this presents.

For those postgraduates approaching or awaiting assessment, we are sorry that the industrial action must continue, but our members voted overwhelmingly for this action. After twenty years of falling pay and six months with no pay offer, there was no other option left open to them. The offer made on 28th March only adds insult to this long-term injury..

If you support us, we would urge you to write to UCEA expressing this and pressing them to make a serious offer that can address the long-term decline in salaries and finally settle this damaging dispute.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact either of ourselves,

Yours sincerely,

Sally Hunt
General Secretary, AUT

Paul Mackney,
General Secretary, NATFHE