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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Working to Rule in the USS Dispute

Sunday, October 30, 2011

It is pleasing to see that employers have agreed to hold fresh talks with the universities union, the UCU, over the changes to pension provision in the USS scheme. After the employers forced through pension changes - most notably a move to a career average scheme rather than a final salary scheme, which may mean a 25% reduction in net pension for most retirees - the UCU held a botched strike process at the end of the summer academic term. This achieved nothing, save a few images of waved placards in the press. Things went very quiet over the vacation, but the new academic year saw the start of new action.

Over the last month or so, I and other members of the UCU have been "working to rule." This means that staff carry out no tasks or activities that are not explicitly stipulated in their contracts, and work no additional hours beyond those they are supposed to. For the universities this makes it quite a tricky dispute to control, as all it means is that employees do only what the employers have said they should do according to the principle of their contracts.

Of course, in practice, everyone knows that academics work far more than the nominal 35 hours a week and carry out many more administrative tasks than they really ought. If employees are "working to rule" and are unable to perform all their functions within their allocated hours, employers cannot legally force them to do more without admitting, embarassingly, that academics are consistently over-working - which makes the employers' devaluing of the pension look even harsher.

However, "working to rule" is perhaps easier said than done for academic staff on the ground. Beyond refusing to attend voluntary meetings, and beyond emailing a line manager (who themselves may be working to rule) every time you refuse to do something you are not actually required to do, there are few actions that employees can do (or not do) that make a public declaration of support for the union action. Most academics are unwilling to compromise on their support of students, so marking, meeting to support students, responding to emails - things which would be obvious if they were not done - tend to continue as normal. Some academics may leave the office at 5.00 prompt, but as the emails and research requirements continue unabated, will still have to work from home - or else cause themselves trauma further down the line. Additionally, it is hard to define what constitutes "work" in the life of an academic. When I settle down to read Sebald's The Emigrants (a brilliant novel I am teaching later in the year) whilst my other half watches Eastenders, does this count as work I should not be doing? Because of these problems, over the long term "work to rule" has very little substantive impact on the running of a university.

What will have an impact is if academics withold marks from student essays and, worse, exams. This runs the risk of alienating students, but on the other hand the new HE marketplace in which students are consumers can actually work to reinforce the academics' position. Students might rightfully ask why, at a time when they are paying ever more to go to university, the staff who teach them find their salaries effectively being cut (as pensions are a deferred part of salary). If the money is not going to the front line, into which black hole is it sinking?

So my guess is that the fact that the employers have returned to the negotiating table now indicates that they too forsee this awkward question further down the line. Working to rule probably is not having much of an impact in the day-to-day life of universities or academics at present. But it does show that academics mean business now, and thus will not shy away from raising the stakes until student voices start to complain. This is a scenario that everyone, academics who cherish the students they teach and employers who cherish the cash that they bring, will want to avoid.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:25 pm


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