Ioannis Costas Batlle & Aurelien Mondon
University Strikes in the UK: Re-Imagining Higher Education
Today, we explore the university strikes in the United Kingdom. My guests are Ioannis Costas Batlle and Aurelien Mondon, lecturers at the University of Bath and participants in the Bath Teach Outs.
Based on their experiences in the current labor movement sweeping the UK, they find an alternative to the neoliberal university.
Their new co-written blog post entitled “University Strikes: Reclaiming a space for emancipatory education” was published by Discover Society.
Learn more about the strikes here: https://www.facebook.com/StrikeOnTeachOut/
Citation: Batlle, Ioannis Costas & Mondon, Aurelien, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 107, podcast audio, March 12, 2018. https://freshedpodcast.com/battle-mondon/
Will Brehm 2:00
Ioannis Costas Batlle and Aurelien Mondon, welcome to FreshEd.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 2:04
Thank you very much.
Aurelien Mondon 2:06
Thank you. Thanks for having us on.
Will Brehm 2:08
Why are academics on strike at Bath University?
Aurelien Mondon 2:12
Well, academics are on strike at Bath University and over 60 other universities across the UK at the moment, mostly because of our pensions, really. That very much was the tipping point of what pushed us to go on strike for, at the moment, what is a 14-day strike action. We’ve done nine days of the strike at the moment, and we are planning on doing another five next week if the negotiations do not start in earnest again today. The tipping point really was the pensions, and the fact that on average, lecturers and academic staff will be losing 10,000 pounds a year – more for younger academic staff – so that could make a massive difference at the end of our career. I mean, for a lot of us, obviously the end of our career is quite far away and we’re expecting we’re going to have to fight again for pensions and other things, but it was really the tipping point because it was felt that the way the valuation was done was very poor, actually. And it really was a way to kind of cut costs from the universities at the expense of staff and making our work conditions a lot worse at a time when actually fees for students are going up, students are paying more and more money and the staff who are teaching them are being paid less and less and treated worse and worse. So, for us, that was very much a tipping point, but this is very much linked to pressure on work for us, to the marketization of education, the fact that students are treated as consumers today making our work a lot harder, and their life a lot harder and their education a lot poorer for this as well.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 3:36
In about 2010, there was already changes to the pension scheme, and these changes went from a final salary scheme to an average salary. And they were made under the assumption that the pension system needed to become sustainable. And after these changes were made – that were made under the promise that “Well, we do not need to change the pension scheme anymore” – so there’s a sense of betrayal once again, now having to shift to defined contribution. And that, again, has helped with the tipping point.
Will Brehm 4:07
So, can you just explain a little bit about the differences between a final pension scheme and an average pension scheme? And I’m not really sure what you’re calling it now where I guess it’s now tied more to contributions that then go into the market? I mean, I’m not sure, but clarify these different changes and how these pensions look differently from 2010 to what they’re proposing now, what the universities are proposing now.
Aurelien Mondon 4:32
Well, there’s a lot of jargon, obviously here. And I think I mean the best thing to do is really to look at the UCU website, who has managed to explain it extremely well, in many ways, and in ways that as lecturers in education and politics might not be able to do so well. I mean in a way it’s moving away from where we would have a collective pot, if you want, where we would all kind of chip into the same pot, I think something that is a lot more individualized, and we would be just risking our own kind of pensions into the market on our own. Our employers were saying that having this collective pot was a lot riskier, but in fact we found out since that actually when the employees were asked, I think it was 52% of them said that they wanted less risk with the pensions and therefore putting in less money themselves directly. But these 52%, we found out, were actually mostly composed of Oxford and Cambridge, who got one vote per college there, which completely skewed the entire vote from our employers, in many ways. And since we’ve begun the strike action, many Vice Chancellors in many universities across the country have said that actually they don’t mind the risk, they don’t mind us being paid well, and having good pensions. I mean, the pension scheme, which is quite safe in a way and allows us to look forward to our pensions to an extent, is one of the benefits, one of the perks we get in the UK. The pay for lecturers and senior lecturers in this country is not as good as in the US or as in Australia, for example. But one thing that is quite good for us is this pension. And this is something that’s very worrying for us, because if that goes, that means that our working conditions are becoming worse and worse. And a lot of our colleagues are extremely well educated, we all have a lot of expertise, and a lot of us could go somewhere else and find work somewhere else. We love being university lecturers, we love teaching, we love our research. But if things go worse in our work conditions, we might look elsewhere, and that would be a terrible shame. And also, that’s the contradiction of students paying more and more for better education and is being treated worse and worse. And again, I keep coming back to this, and I tell my students recently. They’re shocked. I mean, they’re really shocked. Because they think that the money they pay and the increased money they pay year on year comes to us and clearly it doesn’t.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 6:43
So, what we’re currently on, and what we’re fighting for is called Defined Benefits Scheme, and the reason it is safe is because it will pay a decent retirement. Based on our input now to the scheme, we know how much we will get in retirement. The Defined Contribution Scheme, which is high risk, is based on the fluctuations of the stock market. And some people have called that, I think it’s called the “die quickly scheme”, because it encourages you to die sooner, since you won’t be able to have enough money in retirement. And this is a fundamental change, and the difference is enormous in that the average lecturer stands to lose 10,000 pounds a year in retirement. So, for me, effectively, I might have 26,000 pounds a year in retirement. However, if it changes to defined contribution, sorry, it would end up being about 10,000 pounds; it’s actually a 16,000 pound loss a year. I’m living on 10,000 pounds in retirement after working for 39 years. It’s just not acceptable.
Will Brehm 7:45
How many faculty members at the University of Bath are joining this strike?
Aurelien Mondon 7:52
Well, it’s very hard to say at the moment. We will eventually find out how many people have joined because we are legally obliged to tell our employers that we’re on strike. And this is how they dock our pay eventually. So, it’s hard to say at the moment because obviously we’ve had these different strike actions and so we haven’t been able to count the numbers, but it’s been unbelievable in many ways. I took part in strike actions a few years ago – I think four or five years ago – and we were a handful of people on the picket lines handing in flyers. And this time around, I expected it to be the same and actually it was incredible the support we got. And every day, we got more people joining the pickets. And after nine days, people getting nine days of pay docked in a month, people kept joining and people stick to the picket in subzero temperatures for four, five hours a day. In my department, I think it was probably 90% of the staff on strike. We probably are the department where there’s the largest amount of strikers, I guess. But I think across the campus, we’ve seen lots of people on strike. At the end of the day, it’s hard to know how many people were on strike, but I think when we look at the photos across the UK, we see that it’s been followed massively, and people are just fed up. It’s not just a question of pensions, it’s a question of the current situation, and the way we are doing our jobs – a job that we love, a job that we work very hard to, we always go above and beyond. We don’t work a 39-hour week or anything like this, we all work on evenings, weekends, and so on; we all are dedicated to our students, to our research, to our community, and we’re treated worse and worse. And I think this kind of last attack on our pension was just really this tipping point, I think, and Ioannis is right when he says about we were told a few years ago that the pension thing was resolved, and now with really short evaluations, they kind of put that back on the table, thought that we wouldn’t fight because we are tired, but we were angry as well now so lots of people are out.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 9:50
Yes, there’s tens of thousands of lecturers across the country on strike. And the University and Colleges Union, which is our union is just collapsed under the amount of new people joining the union. They have a backlog of applications – just of the force, the energy of people wanting to join picket lines, wanting to fight for their pensions, and it is the biggest strike in the sector. It is unprecedented. And even though, I think it was last year, the UK government put in place a system which made it harder to unionize, where each institution when it balloted its members for this strike needed to achieve at least 50% of members responding to the ballot in order to be able to strike or take any kind of action. Despite that, it was the highest level of response nationally across 65 universities that just overwhelmingly voted in favor of strikes. We’re talking, I think it was 88% voted in favor of strike and 91 or 92% in favor of action short of a strike. So, you see the depth of feeling across the UK. And I do not think that the government, or people managing the pension expected that response. And they also expected students to turn against staff, and that has not really happened.
Will Brehm 11:12
So, I mean before we get into that context, and this issue of university, you know, the Vice Chancellors not expecting unions to really have too much power, and the move or the taking a lot of power away from unions through different policies that were enacted, and yet still having such a response by labor. Before getting into that sort of larger context, I want to ask about sort of these your daily experiences during these past nine days striking. You said earlier that there’s different strike actions taking place. So, what does that look like? Is it just going out and being on a picket line in the freezing cold? What else is happening among these staff members who are striking?
Aurelien Mondon 12:02
Well, there’s a lot happening really. I mean the picket line is the traditional thing, obviously. So again, it depends on the university. Some universities didn’t do it every day. Here at Bath, we had a picket line every day from about 7:30 in the morning to about 12:00, 12:30 before we disbanded. Some people stay there for the whole time, some people just join for an hour or something like that. The aim for the picket line really is to kind of raise awareness among students and staff who are crossing the picket line and tell them what we’re doing, why we are doing this, and why they should support us in many ways, and the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike in many ways, or the bigger the picket line. And again, that’s been amazing to see so many people turning up to these and meeting staff and colleagues that we don’t necessarily talk to because we have our daily routines, and the amount of work we have to do already in our own departments. So, it’s been great to kind of chat like this. So that was the kind of normal way to strike really, and what the union organized for us. But some of us decided to actually go beyond that; in other universities, they organized marches, they organized games and things like that. In our universities, we organized what we called a “Strike On, Teach Out”. So, every afternoon, what we did is we met either in a pub, or in a social club in town, and we invited anyone who wanted to come, and we just had talks about higher education, about our community, about what was happening, about student rent, about student conditions, and so on. And the way we tried to organize it really was … well, we tried to remove, if you want, what we hate about our higher education system, which is this kind of hierarchic system, which is between senior management and us as lecturers, senior lectures and so on. But also, between lecturers and students, this kind of master/student relationship. So, we tried to remove this, and instead act as a community, and a community of learners. And so, there was no kind of real hierarchies: lecturers talked to students, students talked to lecturers in a kind of a egalitarian footing, sharing experience, sharing knowledge, and so on. I mean, it’s been amazing; when we set it up, we had no idea how many people would turn up, we thought people might just want to stay home. Again, it was cold, it was in a pub that was a bit outside of town as well, but it’s a community run pub; so that’s why we organized it there. And the room was packed. When we started, it was kind of like, “God, there’s like five people, and it’s mostly us organizers.” And then people came in, and then we had no more room in the pub for anyone, so anyone have to stand up, sit on the floor, and all that. So, it’s been fantastic. And out of nine days, I think we’ve done that eight days in different venues. In the last couple of days this week, we did it on campus, because some of our students occupied the area next to the Vice Chancellor’s suite to support us. And so, we decided to support them in turn to organize with each other on campus. And yesterday, we had, I mean, I don’t know, I don’t want to make any estimates, but we had so many people taking part in our International Women’s Day event that was linked to the occupation and the Teach Out, and that’s fascinating. And new faces every day, people finding out colleagues, students, I mean it’s been brilliant.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 15:06
Yes, I completely agree with Aurelien. It has been incredibly energizing. And I heard someone yesterday, a colleague mention to me, a wonderful phrase, which is the “pedagogy of the picket,” and just the ethos of the picket line, of meeting people from different departments who have the same spirit. You feel revitalized, energized. One of my other colleagues spoke about “reclaiming agency,” that that for him in the picket line has been wonderful work. To almost say, “Enough is enough. I want to reclaim a space for what I feel is right.” And the Teach Out, as someone who was introduced to the Teach Out as an attendee, not an organizer, I walked away from each Teach Out full of energy; that has been an essential way to keep energy levels up and positivity, and that transfers to the picket line, and it just gets a good vibe going. So, it’s not just all negativity; we’d rather be at work. But, if we can’t be at work, this has been a very bonding experience, if that makes sense.
Will Brehm 16:06
And bonding for both lecturers and faculty members, and students, it sounds like.
Aurelien Mondon 16:12
That’s right. Yes, exactly. And I mean it’s been fantastic to see students turning up and talking to us. And I mean, the students who have turned up, in a way it’s a shame that not more students turned up, but then again, rooms were packed. So, I guess it was it was good in terms of practicalities. But like the students who turned up were like, “You know what? I’ve learned more in a week here.” … I mean, I teach politics, mostly, and my students were, like, “I’ve learned more about politics in a week being had the Teach Outs, and on the picket lines than being in lecture theaters,” which I felt a bit upset about, because, I hope that they will learn from my lectures as well, but at the same time, it was great, because, it was politics in action. And it was us, what we lecturing about in a way when we lecture about inequality, when we lecturer about discrimination, when we lecture about all these topics that we talk about here, it was putting them in action, it was showing them that actually this reaction is real, that community can work, that working together can lead somewhere, and that we have agency as well; exactly the word agency, I think that Ioannis mentioned is very very important here, and it was this feeling again of coming together, of being all cold, tired because it’s like waking up very early, finishing very late. It’s a lot more hard work than our normal work and our work normal is already hard. But yet at the end of the day, we were all so happy, and a happiness that we should get every day from our jobs. We are unbelievably privileged in our situations to be lecturers. It’s such an amazing job to be able to teach young people about things that they are passionate about, and they are dedicating themselves to, or they should be anyway. But here, we got that feeling – the feeling we should get every day – we got it out of that space, because that space was egalitarian; the space kind of brought us all together, and the people who were there wanted to be there, and they wanted to be there for the sake of being there. Not for the sake of an exam, not for the sake of a mark, not for the sake of pleasing a lecturer or a master or someone above them; they wanted to be there to kind of learn, share, and be together. And that was just fascinating.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 18:11
In many respects, staff and when I mean staff, I’m not talking about just teachers, because the USS pension affects a broad range of staff members, but staff, students from all walks around the university, we’ve almost rediscovered how to empathize with each other. And the Teach Outs and the picket line provided an egalitarian space where no one really asked whether you were staff or student, you were just on the picket line, joined us, and we were all together. And that’s something that sometimes gets a bit lost I think in university where there’s an emphasis on hierarchies, teacher/student relationships, and the fact that, as Aurelien mentioned, no assessments. And I think one of the key things of the Teach Out, and almost by side of the picket line, none of this is going on anybody’s CV. This is not to build a career, nothing. It is just: let’s enjoy it for the sake of enjoy it, let’s learn for the sake of learning, let’s talk to people for the sake of talking to people. And that, as we’ve been discussing, is refreshing, energizing, and revitalizing.
Will Brehm 19:11
Last week, I talked to Henry Giroux on FreshEd, and he was arguing that we needed to “repoliticize” education, and in a ways, what it sounds like these Teach Outs are doing, and these strike actions are doing, is precisely that – it’s bringing politics back into learning. And I mean it’s just quite refreshing to realize that there’s such excitement coming out of these Teach Outs and students, I mean they are presumably also still paying their university fees, right? I mean they’re not stopping, they’re not getting a refund, are they?
Aurelien Mondon 19:48
Well, some of them have tried to argue for it. There’s been petitions going around, but I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. I think what students should ask is not to pay for university at all in the first place, not for refunds, really. But I think, yes, I think there is a hunger and I think once … but it’s difficult you see, because I think it’s also a lot about hegemony as well, at the same time. It’s about the framework and the mindset that students have when we come to university, and more and more they come as consumers, and they’re taught to come as consumers. Now we have an office for students which treats students exactly like consumers and treats us like it like any other kind of retailer on the main street of anything … And I think this is very very problematic, and I think the Teach Outs are only part of the solution; I think we need to go far beyond, and I think we need to challenge ourselves as lecturers as much as students need to challenge themselves and their government. And I think we need to kind of be a bit bolder as lecturers and be a bit braver in our approach to learning and in our approach to the way we go about teaching our students on a daily basis. I think we need to politicize universities, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do with the Teach Outs of course, but the Teach Outs reached very few people. What we’ve tried to do as well – and I think we’ve learned from past mistakes – is with the picket lines … I mean, the picket lines in the 70s, 80s, maybe the 90s in the UK, they tended to be things that you do not cross and things that tended to be extremely antagonistic, of yelling almost insults at people crossing them and things like that. And from day one this time around, we saw that this would not work, because we realized that our students who are crossing the picket lines simply don’t understand what politics is, they don’t understand that another way as possible. They don’t understand that their current situation of paying more than 9,000 pounds a year does not have to be this way, and they just accept it, unfortunately. That’s hegemony at its best, there’s no coercion whatsoever, they just accepted as common sense. This is just what you do, you have to pay 9,000 pounds, 9,250 pounds a year to study with 6% interest rate on top of it. And I think what we realized very quickly is that the typical kind of picket line of yelling, “scab” to people – well, first thing, it’s illegal nowadays, thanks to the latest legislation. But not only that, but it wouldn’t have worked. So, what we tried to do, in fact, is to create new flyers, like, we need comic book flyers, we need various things, we need fun flyers, we did like we printed some fake banknotes with our Vice Chancellor’s face on it. Because she’s very well paid, and she’s on the board of the pension’s scheme as well, at the same time. So, we try to engage students in a way to try to kind of raise awareness rather than just antagonize them in many ways, and it was quite interesting to see their responses, and actually, I mean I was quite surprised. I thought we would have a lot more kind of nasty responses in many ways, because no one likes to be told that they should support something, and they don’t want to in a way. So, people tend to have a kind of self-righteous reaction. But it was very very few who actually reacted badly; I think in the nine days of picketing that I’ve done, I’ve only had one kind of heated moment really. And the next day, that guy came through and just put his head down because he realized that he was being a bit of an idiot. But it’s been amazing to see students being unbelievably supportive: being really upset to miss lectures, being still in the hegemonic kind of mindset, which is like, “Oh, you know, we pay 9,000 pounds, it’s really annoying” blah, blah, blah, but then really understanding that there’s more to it. And you know, it was kind of breaking the hegemony, if you want, kind of starting to kind of make a little breach here to say, “Hey, look, there’s something else. We could do something different. And if we do it together, we’ll do it well, and it will be great.” And if we could win this struggle, I think it would make a massive statement for us, for students, but for any other workers. You know, the fact that it’s been a long time since people have won fights in the UK. Actually, that’s not entirely true, but at least as well publicized as us, very recently, I think it was last year, cleaners in some universities in London managed to actually create their own union and won massive battles against universities. Of course, it’s not as well publicized as us, you know. Privileged positions as lecturers, who have access to media and things like that, do it. But I think, the more of these battles can be one, the more collective action can be shown in a positive light, the better it is. And here, I think, we’ve managed to actually bring everyone behind us, which is fantastic, really.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 24:15
Absolutely. And what have been incredible is the students, particularly when engaging with the students and talking to the students … because of course for them, in many respects, pensions are something that are so distant and so far away, that doesn’t really enter the realm of understanding of day to day life. But when we’ve explained that pensions are about working conditions, they’re about deferred pay, that these pension cuts effectively would amount to about a 6 to 7% pay cut, and then we show them the figures, we show them within the context of higher education of how this casualization of contracts, people are … well there’s the gender pay gap, there’s all these injustices around that are rife, students start to think, “Well, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem very fair,” and then they start to join us. And what has been particularly powerful is this appreciation, and I think something that I mentioned earlier, that I think employers and pension managers thought the students would turn against us on the basis that they want their money, they were consumers. And while some of them had not happy about this and had maybe been against us a little bit, there are many who have been just in favor, and have wanted to support, say, “Well, if I were in your shoes, I would also strike.” And I saw a tweet, which I think was wonderful, by – I don’t know – a lecturer somewhere in the country, where he said, “Look, I’m not teaching in a lecture room, but you know what I am teaching my students? That collective action makes a difference.” And as we said … the employers, after two days of strikes, or three days, they were their shifted their position from “No, I’m definitely not talking to anybody” to, “Okay, let’s have some negotiations.”
Will Brehm 25:52
So, are they negotiating now? Is that currently happening?
Ioannis Costas Batlle 25:56
Yes. So right now, they’re embedded in negotiations. So, we have the union, UCU, and the employers, UUK – Universities UK – and they’re currently negotiating. The negotiations, as far as I’m aware, are going on till today, then they will, presumably if no solution is found, continue. We have strikes still planned as our 14 days of strikes, we’ve done nine. Next week, the strikes is still on for the time being, and they will run from Monday to Friday. But yesterday, UCU also put out a statement suggesting that they’re drafting or planning a further 14 days of strikes to be called if need be. And these would be … these strikes have been very disruptive, but those other 14 days of strikes will even more disruptive because they would come during exam periods and assessment periods. And that is something that has been discussed as a kind of nuclear option, where no one really wants to do that. Because it hurts staff, it hurts students, it hurts everybody. But if the employers are still not listening about the gravity of the situation, they’re not responding to the pressure from above, I think it’s 30 Vice Chancellors now who have spoken out and said, “We need to resume meaningful negotiations,” then there is no option but to hit the nuclear button, so to speak.
Will Brehm 27:16
It’s interesting, this idea of using the exams – as sort of product of standardization and of neoliberalism – being used and turned against the very system as a way to force the labor reforms that are so counter to neoliberalism. I mean I love that idea.
Aurelien Mondon 27:34
Yes, that’s right. It’s fascinating as well, that, even students who are so worried about exams, have told me, like “You guys should do that.” And it’s like, oh okay, well if you’re supporting us on this, that would be brilliant in a way. But it also shows like the stage we’ve got at in a way where senior management and the people at Universities UK live in a bubble that is just like completely disconnected from the realities of our day to day lives. At the moment, we have, as Ioannis said, 30 Vice Chancellors have turned around and said, “Yes, we need meaningful negotiations, we’re willing to take more risks” blah, blah, blah. The latest ones were Oxford and Cambridge, who finally like decided to kind of say, “Okay, that we were wrong, we shouldn’t have supported that.” It was amazing, in Oxford what happened is they had a meeting, a canceled meeting, and I think you just need 20 people to raise their hands to veto any discussion. And so, they wanted to have a discussion about that, and opening negotiations. Twenty people raised their hand, so the vice chancellor said, “All right, this is vetoed, we’re not talking about it.” Everyone left the room, and they had a discussion outside of the room in the cold, and they voted, I think 454 negotiations, two against. And since, the Oxford VC said, “All right, we’re going back to negotiations.” The Cambridge Vice Chancellor said the same. Most Vice Chancellors have said the same. There’s no one anymore, but except that bubble of senior management people who have nothing to do with university these days, who are saying we don’t want to negotiate. But the worst thing is, all of us want to go back to work. We want to go back to lecture theatres, we want to go back to help our students, we certainly don’t want to strike for another 14 days in exam period. But they’re being so closed minded in their certainties in a way, or they’re being so stuck in their certainties, but the system that they put on us, the pressure they put on us, the pay cuts they put on us, the fees that they throw at students is the normal thing and the right thing to do but they refuse to budge at the moment. We’ve even had the right-wing press behind us. It’s insane. You know, it’s just insane. And yet they don’t budge. So, we’re all hoping that the strike will end and that we will have meaningful negotiations. We want to be back at work, but as so I think we’ve shown that we are resolved and that we will strike as long as it takes, and if we can use the exams against the system, then why not?
Ioannis Costas Batlle 29:52
Amongst all these pay cuts, what recently revealed is that the chief executive of the pension fund was awarded a 70% pay increase – that’s at 82,000 pay increase. Two of the members on the board apparently earn a million pounds.
Aurelien Mondon 30:07
Just under, Ioannis – 900,000 pounds.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 30:10
And there we go. Which is astounding. So, they can get this 70% pay increase whilst student fees go up, rent goes up, real wages for lecturers go down – and they’ve been going down by I think about 13, 14% since 2009. It’s astounding.
Will Brehm 30:29
Do you think that this action, this labor movement, that’s happening now will sort of usher in a new era of higher education where some of the ideals that you’ve sort of uncovered and unearthed in these Teach Outs would reenter higher education, that the bubble of administrators that you see is getting smaller and smaller and more closed minded, may sort of be pushed aside for some of these new ideas of this broad coalition that you seemed to have assembled between faculty, staff and students, and it sounds like also laborers in other industries? I mean, it almost sounds like there’s this new era upon us. Is that maybe being too hopeful, or am I being just naive? I’m not sure.
Aurelien Mondon 31:22
No, I don’t think so. I think you’re not being hopeful; I think we are seeing a new era. And I haven’t been that optimistic in a long time. We are at the University of Bath, which is not famous for being radical in any way, shape, or form. But in the last couple of years, we’ve seen massive changes here. Students and staff have managed to actually push out our Vice Chancellor, who is going to be resigning very soon because of pay scandals. We had massive pay scandals in the last few years. Our Vice Chancellor is paid 450,000 pounds a year; she’s the best paid VC in the country. She lives rent free in a massive mansion in the city center of Bath, she got a free car loan for a car that has been written off since. And I mean the tipping point, in fact, was under pensions for us at Bath, the tipping point was last year, she claimed two pounds worth of biscuits in her expenses. So even that she refused to pay, and that was the tipping point. So, we had demonstrations where students were throwing biscuits at the windows of her office and things like that. It was like May ’68, except the cobblestones were biscuits, really. I was talking to some of my colleagues who have been here 20 years, and they’re like, “We never saw a demonstration at Bath ever.” And last year, we had these demonstrations against the Vice Chancellor – a Vice Chancellor who’s been here for over 15 years – who no one would have ever thought would go. Even in my most optimistic kind of days, I wouldn’t expect that. And then she was gone very quickly. I mean students are still fighting, and staff are still fighting for her to go sooner because she accepted to go with a six-month sabbatical – 250,000 pounds, right? So, it’s still not quite exactly what students want. But I think the fact that the University of Bath and our student body managed to kind of set this in motion. And then, this kind of criticism of the pay of Vice Chancellors went to other universities like Southampton, Birmingham, and so on. And it kind of started spreading from a university like ours, to some extent, which is fascinating as being the vanguard. I think that makes me very hopeful and the fact that these strikes have been followed so massively make me very hopeful. However, I think my worry is that let’s say we win this battle about the pension, people will think that this is the coming of a new age in a way, and we will just relax and think, “That’s it, the work is done.” But I think at the end of the day, this is just the beginning, really, and I think, yes, that could be the beginning of a new age. But that’s very much up to us as lecturers, as students, as a staff at universities. For us to reconnect, for us to kind of create new governance in our universities, where the people at the top are reconnected to us. Where Vice Chancellors cannot stay on for years and years and years, where Vice Chancellors cannot get massive pay rises when most of the staff are getting, actually, real terms pay cuts, as Ioannis was saying. Where Vice Chancellors cannot get pay rises or build new buildings where most of their staff is on casual contracts, or on zero-hour contracts, like we have a lot at the University of Bath, for example. So, I think what we need to do is keep working very, very hard, and that’s not an easy battle, because all of us have jobs that take a lot of time and a lot of energy already. With our research, with our teaching, admin roles, and so on and so forth. Like the picket lines has allowed us to talk to each other, but we will have to make sure that these spaces remain open in the future where we can talk to each other across departments, across disciplines, across jobs, obviously – research, teaching, admin, help, estates, and so on and so forth. So, I’m massively optimistic, I’m massively hopeful, but I know that this is only the beginning, and the hard work is only really starting.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 34:56
Yes, absolutely. And I, like Aurelien, am also very optimistic, and particularly I wanted to pick up on one of the words Aurelien discussed, which is “governance”. And until recently, governance has been something that has not really been discussed, because, well, it’s quite boring and tedious compared to other walks of life, and what has become quite clear, with at least governance at the University of Bath – what started almost this mini revolution in Bath – was when we found out that the Vice Chancellor was earning this outrageous amount of money, over 450,000 pounds, and then it transpired that she sat on her own remuneration committee. So she was on the committee that determined her pay. And then it seems that there are an enormous amount of Vice Chancellors across the UK who sit on their own remuneration committees, which is astounding. I’d like to sit on the committee that determines my own pay as well. Who wouldn’t?
Aurelien Mondon 35:46
And also, beyond that, they sit on their communities, but they also nominate the people who sit on their committee.
Will Brehm 35:52
Aurelien Mondon 35:52
Self-fulfilling, it’s brilliant. Oh, yeah.
Ioannis Costas Batlle 35:55
Exactly! So suddenly governance is becoming a big thing, like, “How is our university governed?” “Who are the people governing it?” which links to representation. “Who are the voices?”, “What are the voices of staff?”, of all staff; we’re not talking lecturers, professors. All staff – services, hospitality. Where are their voices? It’s their university as well. What about students? It’s students’ universities as well. We need to deal with these problems. Again, you have governance issues with Universities UK and the pension fund, where you have 17% pay increase, as I mentioned earlier, for the chief executive. What Aurelien mentioned earlier about how Oxford and Cambridge seem to have their votes double counting, where they had a vote each for Oxford and Cambridge, plus a vote for each of their colleges in determining whether the pension scheme was going to go from the defined benefit to defined contribution. What’s going on there? And right now, there’s a petition circulating to make sure that well, UUK can fall under freedom of information request, so we can find out what exactly is going on here. So, this optimism is not just, “Let’s defend our pensions,” it’s also, “Let’s think about social justice, let’s think about how the system works, let’s change the system.” And as Aurelien said, this is going to take a long time, but there’s definitely appetite for these changes.
Will Brehm 37:13
Well, Ioannis and Aurelien, thank you so much for joining FreshEd and best of luck on this action, and stay warm today on the picket line.
Aurelien Mondon 37:23
Ioannis Costas Batlle 37:25
Thank you so much.