VC! “What Are You Doing?”

I spoke to Steven Spencer, the co-president of the UCU York branch, about the current academic turbulence we are in and what the future holds.

(Image: UCU York Branch )

How much more action does the UCU feel is going to be necessary in order to get any sort of change? It seems that things have been going on for a while, and some would argue that neither side is budging.

That’s not strictly true…There are two disputes that we have.

We’ve been in dispute about pensions now for three years, in this instance, but it’s a longer dispute that goes way back to 2016/ 17. On that side of it, there has been progress. We have a valuation of the pension scheme that is upcoming. Every three years, it has to be revalued. What we have from the employers at the moment… is a joint declaration about how to take this valuation forward and restore benefits.

On the ‘four fights’ dispute, we’ve reached an impasse at UK level because we’ve been very clear that a 5% pay rise this year, following a 3% pay rise last year, is simply not enough. 

It’s not enough in any environment. In York’s particular environment, there is a housing cost crisis and a housing supply crisis. We’re competing with the private industry for highly qualified people who are walking. They can’t afford to stay in academia anymore. 

The employers will not budge at the moment. They’re absolutely intransigent on this point. 

The fact that the university is struggling with money – as it claims – is due to senior management decisions. It’s not an external thing. 

How long will it take? We don’t know. 

If you want to characterise the way members are, they’re tired, very frustrated, but they’re bloody angry. 

We’re in another academic year with another set of students with the same set of problems, and they are solvable. 

As a student, there is big anger as to how much of an impact this is having on us. We don’t see the £9,250 from the government for our tuition that goes directly to the university. We can’t stop paying that. Yet, for that money since April, I’ve had nothing marked, I’ve had a lack of teaching. 

As a student, you are getting the complete brunt of this. Do you realise how much the students are suffering?

Do you think we do?

I think you do, but I think in order to get your point across, we are becoming collateral damage in a larger dispute.

That’s interesting… I’ll give you an honest perspective…This would be like the percolator viewpoint at the membership. It has broken members’ hearts to have been in this situation and to deploy in a marking and assessment boycott. We have had members not sleeping, going off work with stress, had members in tears, endless conversations and agonising over ‘Is this necessary?’

 Most of us are underpaid. We are overworked. We only come to work because we want to work either on research or with students or both. So do we realise? Absolutely. We feel it. 

Does our senior management realise what an invidious situation they’re placing you and us in? 

We went to a marking and assessment boycott because we had threatened it. The marking standards this year are atrocious. 

Mechanisms that have been put in place to enable people to graduate means degrees simply are not quality assured to the same degree they usually are. That’s appalling, absolutely appalling. I would ask, what else can members do?

What type of university is this going to be? Is it all going to be casual contracts? Are we all going to be still underpaid? Are women and disabled members going to be paid much less than males? What kind of future do we want? 

We agree the sector is underfunded; what we disagree with is that our members should take the brunt of that through paying conditions. 

I’d ask our Vice-Chancellor, and I ask him directly regularly, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘Why are you not turning your frustration towards the people who are making our institution unviable?’

Speaking to Vision this week, Charlie Jeffery responded: 

“[To Steven] I say exactly the same thing. What are you doing through your mechanisms to help produce that common ground?”

UCU has withdrawn its marketing and assessment boycott. Do you think the marking and assessment boycott actually did anything?

Was it worth it? We don’t know how this ends… Typically, industrial relations, when they break down, you have a period of action, then you have a negotiation. What’s happened now is employers have chosen to make this a battle of attrition. 

They’ve given up on the current government… They’re not willing to impose more financial pain on students, nor would I wish them to, but that’s what they’re doing… we’re the target. 

Has the marking and assessment boycott moved things on? I’d say it has. The very fact we’re talking about it. The fact that students have been involved in this and have seen first-hand just how morally bankrupt institutions are to pass degrees, to have people who are unqualified marking essays and give feedback that is sackable in normal circumstances. 

The university, in effect, committed gross misconduct on itself in terms of the way it has tried. 

It has moved… We say 5% is nowhere near enough. They say they can’t pay any more. The power is not on our side. 

We’re asking for the same things, which we think are totally reasonable. Will employers force us into more action? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

How can students help? How can we actually help move everything along?

Your generation of students are being made to think like consumers. Your degree is framed as a series of things that you pay for, things that you should get because you’ve signed a contract. That’s not really what’s happening here… all you’re actually paying for is to get the degree. How they choose to do that is totally up to them. 

Think of yourself as people who are joining a community for life. If you’re a York graduate, you’re always going to be a York graduate. The quality of the institution and the reputation will always matter. 

What do students want the University to be like in 10 years’ time? I would say once you know what you think the University should be, tell the University what you want it to be, tell the Vice Chancellor, tell the UVB members, tell the Council, tell the press.

“We want York to be a genuine university of public good, not just a strapline on a bus.”

We are on the same side. It’s just very unfortunate that you happen to be going to university at a time where industrial relations are broken down and there’s multiple external pressures stopping them from being reformed unless management is brave. 

I did an open day the other day. Someone said to me, ‘Is it worth it?’

If you’re asking me in general, ‘Is a degree worth it?’ Yeah, I think it still is. It’s getting to the point that if we go down the line that we’re going down, in a few year’s time, I’d have a different answer. I’d say go to a country that still respects higher education.

The message to freshers is: come into this new year with your eyes open. You’re walking into a university system that is creaking. It is under financial pressure. There’s a government that does not give a s***t about it. They don’t care. They would actively see universities go bust at the moment.

You actually have a live political argument on campus. There’s activism. It has the potential to make a big difference.

Don’t just look at the narrow degree education you’ve come for, look at the broader picture. 

We are doing things to engage more… we find the student union quite difficult to engage with because it’s very hit-and-miss, in and out, and people have their own agendas. It’s not a criticism of them; it’s just saying that our relationship with them doesn’t work well at the moment, and we have tried to liaise. 

In a Right of Reply, the University of York said: 

“We agree with many of the points made in Steven’s interview, particularly in regard to yet another cohort of students facing more disruption and the same set of problems that are solvable.”

“And we know our staff work hard and want and deserve more, but Steven is incorrect when it comes to his point on financial handling. Finances across the HE sector are under severe pressure, compounded by inflation, which has added tens of millions of pounds to university costs across the UK.

“This year and beyond, we can expect to see many universities posting operating deficits while also working hard to reduce costs.

“We are also not compromising on our academic standards – marking students’ work will take time in some cases as we insist on well-qualified markers who can give this time to complete.”