THE university lecturers’ strike will probably not come to be regarded as one that defined industrial relations in 21st century Britain. No matter the outcome, it will not have been a milestone in the workers’ eternal struggle for fairness and equality. Discounting the odd raised eyebrow on the picket lines outside our great centres of learning, and some raised voices and shoving in an occupied common room, it will not have been characterised by anything approaching unpleasant or rude behaviour. We are not talking Grunwick 1976 here.

Stereotypical views of this lecturers’ dispute though, shouldn’t make us blind to its importance. Very few Scottish families will not remain unaffected by its outcome. There are currently more than 235,000 students in Scotland, a figure which includes people from England and overseas. Access to a higher education is integral to the way that successive Scottish Governments want to shape the country’s future.

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You may wish to argue that possessing so many degree-awarding institutions conferring pointy hats on such a large number of our young people gives rise to unreal expectations and dilutes exceptional academic achievement. Another view is that many children from social backgrounds where academic study and the idea of “getting ahead” were alien concepts have benefited greatly from the opportunity to access these anointed places which were once the exclusive preserve of a privileged few.

The attainment gap in educational achievement in Scotland is still far too large and the system still favours children from the country’s most affluent neighbourhoods who can exploit the advantages conferred by private tuition. This strike will have a bearing on the chances of poorer pupils reaching these places in the future. It is about combating an unfair system in a sector which has grown fat in recent years without anything like the scrutiny we reserve for bigger industries.

Certainly, the average Scottish family trying to exist on less than the average household income of £26.000 a year may encounter difficulties sympathising with striking university lecturers who are paid in excess of the average £40,000 for working in Higher Education. Yet those who have arrived at such a salary have done so following, in most cases, a dozen years or so of ongoing study and research. They possess rare gifts that could be rewarded with salaries many times that in the private sector. Most, though, have chosen to teach our brightest and best because this in itself brings its own rewards that can’t be measured in money and because they know that this task is crucial to Scotland’s economic future.

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How crucial are university principals to Scotland’s economic future? The salaries of these individuals (eight of the best paid are men) dwarf those of public sector chiefs and our top politicians. Jim McDonald, Principal of Strathclyde University, is paid £366,000 a year including add-ons. The principals of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh are also paid well over £300,000. Not a single principal at each of Scotland’s universities earns less than £216,000. Yet they exist in a bubble where it is impossible for them to fail. They are working with faculties full of gifted colleagues and each year take in thousands of students who are well-motivated and primed to succeed. Being part-charity, part-business and part-public institution they enjoy a unique status which make them difficult to quantify by the profit-and loss indicators by which we measure other sectors.

The history and traditions of these places confer advantages over newer institutions. No one is suggesting here that a rag-and-bone man could do their jobs but he would still find it difficult to fail.

At stake for the striking University and College Union (UCU) members is a lot more than their pension entitlement, although that in itself is important. The proposed end to the defined benefit element of the universities’ superannuation pension scheme would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than at present. Some of the tactics of their bosses in Universities UK in trying to drive a wedge between students and staff have been clumsy and arrogant.

This is also about democratic governance in Higher Education which at the present time resembles a medieval system of patronage. We currently pay unelected principals and vice-chancellors their grotesquely swollen salaries while allowing them to appoint their own remuneration committees. They have open-ended periods of tenure and have been allowed unchallenged to run universities like private businesses. Thus, in common with other large private-sector companies, it was inevitable that they would soon come for the workers’ pensions. One senior lecturer on the Glasgow University picket-line told me this week: “The negative consequences of such behaviour include low staff morale, the undermining of the profession and a reduced student experience. My solution would be to have all vice-chancellors elected for a maximum four-year period on salaries capped at £100,000. Staff morale would shoot up as academic leaders became more collegial and started worrying about their own pensions, pay and conditions. This crisis will either break the union or deliver democratic accountability.”

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The stealthy emergence of a super-class at the top of our universities is an obvious consequence of the lack of public accountability. There are crucial indirect repercussions, too. University chiefs have entered into shadowy and loosely-defined pacts with local government to turn swathes of our cities into student dormitories with unlovely pre-pack towers almost exclusively to exploit the spending power of affluent students from China and the Far East. Few would argue that global diversity on our campuses enhances the learning experience. This “internationalisation” also presents problems. The avaricious way in which this has been conducted by university chiefs suggests they see it as a short-term cash cow which risks disfiguring our built heritage. These buildings are so devoid of any charm or style that they are unfit for any other purpose should the bubble burst in the overseas student market. And as for widening access, well, let’s not allow that to interrupt the gravy train: there’s less money in Balornock than in there is in Beijing.

On the picket line yesterday the striking lecturer made his position clear. He and his colleagues want to see a vibrant and diverse international campus but more importantly, they want to see the class ceiling lifted, not lowered. The success of their industrial action will go a long way to bringing this about.