Last week, like many university staff across Britain, I took part in the latest in a series of strikes for fair pay. We are campaigning because over the last four years we have suffered a fourteen per cent pay cut in real terms. In contrast, university heads like our own Vice-Chancellor, currently on a staggering £380,000, recently received an eight percent pay increase.
Last year hundreds of students marched in support of the action. And last week I attended the inaugural meeting of the Oxford Activist Network, an organisation set up by students to build links between staff and students concerned at the impact of government policies upon not just higher education but the whole fabric of society. What these students are recognising is that university staff and students have everything to gain from supporting each other, since the attack on university staff pay is integrally linked to a parallel attack on the principle of an access system based on individual merit, not on the wealth of one’s parents.
As a teenager I was inspired by Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, the nineteenth century novel about a working class young man who yearns to study at Oxford. Jude’s struggle resonated with me since I was engaged upon my own quest to get into Cambridge, despite being from a poorly achieving comprehensive and the first of my family to apply to university. My success in gaining admission to Cambridge – compared to the fictional Jude’s failure – reflected the huge shift that took place in the 1960s whereby large numbers of working class youths could for the first time gain places at a top university. Yet now government policies threaten to turn the clock back to a time when money, not merit, determined whether one would get to study at Oxbridge.
Three years ago I was one of a number of Oxford academics who campaigned against the proposed rise in student fees to £9,000 a year. We warned that this increase would not only deter students from poorer backgrounds, but was likely to be just the first of further increases which would take the price of an Oxford education into the stratosphere. Many dismissed our predictions as scaremongering. Recently, however, our Vice-Chancellor argued that Oxford should be able to charge £16,000 a year. Increasing fees reflects the logic of running universities purely for profit. The same logic drives the attack on staff pay and the scandalous fact that universities are twice as likely as other workplaces to use zero hours contracts characterised by unpredictable hours and income.
Opposing the influence of free-market ideology not just in our universities but in our schools and hospitals, represents a huge challenge. Yet, students at Manchester recently began to campaign for an economics syllabus which covers alternative thinkers like Marx and Keynes, and recognises that neoliberalism both failed to predict the financial crash of 2008 and offers no answers for tackling the crisis except through an ever increasing gap between rich and poor. With a recent Oxfam report revealing that the richest 85 people in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion, and our planet facing environmental catastrophe due to unbridled global warming, such questioning of the consensus is long overdue.