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Enough to make you want to join a union

In politics, as the saying goes, timing is everything. This week has seen the union conduct a one day strike followed by a boycott on assessment. While I dealt with my reasons for not going on strike but supporting the rights of others to do so previously, I was potentially prepared to also feel some sympathy for the university as they claimed things like, "the union won't sit and negotiate". In general, we have been hearing the usual employer/union nonsense from both sides. This week, though, has also seen details made public on the pay and increases the vice-chancellors of various universities around the UK.

Given that some of them earn more than 10 times what I do, some earn more than the prime minister, and given that their increases over the previous years have been greater than what the union is asking for, I hope you will find it easy to understand why my sympathy has rapidly eroded. For anyone interested, Alan Gilbert pulls in a lazy 226,000 while occupying position 6 and the post of VC of Manchester. It at least fills me with hope that he moved for the money and wasn't extorting quite as much from the Australian taxpayers. And, of course, as soon as I saw the table showing the top ten earners, I could have quite easily written the statements from the spokesmen. I'll give you until the next paragraph to guess a few.

We are regaled with such statements as vice chancellors did "a demanding job as chief executives of complex multimillion-pound organisations" and "their remuneration packages reflect what it takes to attract, retain and reward individuals of sufficient calibre, experience and talent in a growing sector." They said the average rise for vice-chancellors last year was "well below the average for chief executives in both the public and private sectors." More on the story can be found in the Independent, here.

I try not to swear often, so that it has more effect when I do it. Here goes:

Well fuck me. Isn't that just what the union is asking for? To be remunerated in comparison with people in equivalent industries? If they can be compared to people in equivalent positions, I want to be compared to someone taking up an industrial post with a PhD. Or a graduate engineer with 4 years experience. If you make the argument for those at the top, you make the argument right the way through.

And while we're at it, looking at the bureaucracy in this place, and the shit I have to go through to get anything done (grant code and boss' signature to get a manual bound, you're fucking kidding, right?) the bloke running the shop should not only be given the flick, they should be hung, drawn and quartered. If a company had the legacy bureaucracy that this place seems to, they would have gone bust long ago. As it is, the (non-teaching part of the) university seems to me to essentially be an infrastructure manager supporting independent research groups who have to fund themselves. I've never heard of the university offering research grants. I've never heard of the university stepping in to support research which has missed out on funding from other sources. They have no particular interest in the research I do. They don't even really have any interest in the research that some of the more senior professors do, unless it makes for a good copy. At Melbourne, I only ever met Gilbert when there was a camera present. When I worked at Comalco, I met the site general manager within a couple of weeks, and there were feedback mechanisms in case I had any ideas. Rebecca seemed to not only meet, but also present to some pretty high-up people. Here, they have merged the departments so that it is so large I haven't even met the head of department. How is anything going to filter up to the vice chancellor?

The union has announced they will drop all action if staff wage increases have parity with the vice chancellor's pay. Fair enough, too. Remembering that a 20% increase for someone on 200,000 is 40,000, while for someone on 20,000 it is only 4,000, it is far cheaper to reward the lower paid workers, and the money will make far more difference.

I've heard arguments for how precarious the position is at the top - how they are well compensated because they could be dismissed quite quickly if things start going bad. How they have the security of...of...a fiddler on the roof (cue music). You want a precarious position? Try being someone on this side: My guarantee - if I do my work well, and have the ability, and have luck, then I can keep my job. But only if there is still a funded project for me. I've seen a post-doc work really hard on a risky project. It didn't work, and he lost his job. Not because he didn't work. Not because he didn't have the ability. Because he took a risk, it didn't pay off and there was no more funding for him. It doesn't promote high-risk high-return research, does it? And if he had been successful? Some really good publications and he would have kept his job. Yes there are career paths and career plans, but until you are much further in your career, there are no guarantees. Does this mean that I can get an extra 60,000/year because I don't have security?

Now a disclaimer - I don't object to VCs being paid to the extent they are. I just don't like the hypocrisy whereby their pay is justified as comparable to like positions while we are not paid comparable to like positions and they are given percentage increase they deny to the staff.


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