Many reasons for discontent among university staff and students | Letters

Letters: Many university professors in the UK, even if their contribution to the advancement of knowledge has been precisely zero, are on salaries between £70,000 and £100,000, and are lined up for fat pensions

The external examiners who have resigned (Academics quit exam roles over 1.1% pay offer, 27 May; Letters, 27 May) say they have done so to support the campaign against low pay, casualisation, gender inequality and the discrepancy between the sizes of pay increases for lecturers and those for vice-chancellors. That is fair enough, but the public ought to know a few things.

First, casualisation of teaching provision is encouraged by a culture in which full-time academic staff are expected to apply for large research grants, which will raise money for their institution and buy them out of teaching. The corrupting effect of this, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is obvious, with millions given to projects whose conclusions are often banal or empty. Senior staff in particular are only too happy to go along with this, and to leave teaching – or the passing on to the next generation of a tradition of inquiry – to inexperienced and less well-paid junior staff. Second, many university professors in the UK, even if their contribution to the advancement of knowledge has been precisely zero, are on salaries between £70,000 and £100,000, and are lined up for fat pensions. Third, the expansion of the university sector has given jobs, both academic and administrative, to many who, two decades ago, would have had to do something else, probably more demanding and useful, to earn a living.

There is much to complain about, but perhaps we ought to focus on the problems that are really killing universities: the commitment of vast resources that could be spent on library stocks to unnecessary and poorly designed new buildings; the awarding of first- and upper-second-class degrees to students who 20 years ago would have struggled to get a lower second; the use of administrators to make key decisions over matters of pedagogy; the desperate efforts to make some degree programmes appear vocational when they are not and cannot be; and the endless tide of publications that nobody in their right mind would want to read – or write.
Charles Turner
Associate professor of sociology, University of Warwick

• Rather ironic that professors are resigning as external examiners in protest at what they see as unfair pay in universities. External examining is one of the many ways (alongside additional teaching, book royalties and consultancy) that they can top up their pay packets if they feel hard up.

That said, it is hard to disagree with them about the huge and undeserved surpluses that universities have built up due to high student tuition fees and the removal of the cap on student numbers.

The fair response to this surplus is, of course, to reduce tuition fees rather than to increase the salaries of already generously rewarded professors and handsomely remunerated “university leaders”.
Mike Jackson
Professor emeritus, University of Hull

• As the mother of an undergraduate at a Russell Group university, I am surprised that the pay of academic staff has fallen “in real terms by 14.5% since 2009”, but not surprised that universities have a “collective surplus of £1.85bn”. The business model is outrageously skewed in favour of the universities. For £9,000 my child buys 20 weeks’ worth of education, consisting of 50 hour-long lectures and 50 hours of seminars = £90 an hour in the physical presence of a lecturer. These same academics are resigning as external examiners. Now she can’t even get someone to mark her papers!
Barbara Patterson
Leatherhead, Surrey

• I am sorry to see that our academic leaders feel the need to make a dramatic decision to try to get over their concerns – not just about levels of pay in universities and colleges, but the relentless casualisation of them and their staff, and disregard for academic status. If that were the only workforce issue in England, no doubt they could be ignored. But the chaos caused by commercialisation of public services and cuts in pay and staffing levels across large swaths of the public and private sectors is now a real issue.

Our hard-working junior doctors have been on strike. Now well-qualified teaching staff as well. We have had strikes on the railways, on the London underground and in art galleries, as well as many in construction and other private sectors.

The scale of strikes is small nowadays in comparison to last century, which seems to be the rather meaningless comparison that is made. This is due in part to the onerous anti-strike legislation brought in and kept in place by governments of both parties. However, we could also factor in the rise in the workforce living with mortgage debts. The fact that large-scale industry has diminished and a lot more people work in smaller workplaces and essentially lower-skilled jobs with increasing levels of insecurity also plays a part. Then, because of the financial pressures – and in many cases, like the doctors, a noble reluctance to take action – strikes are very much shorter tactical events. But it is worth noting that strike ballots are running at four times the level of actual strikes, which does not indicate a happy workforce to me.

The malaise in our workforce is getting worse. If we had a Labour government we would be seeing headlines about a “summer of discontent”, but as it is the media and government ignore the situation. It is almost as if the only people who care about the state of the UK are the workers. The government and the media obviously do not.
Michael McLaughlin
Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire

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