Students back the UCU marking boycott. Image: Vimeo
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The student fight for all university staff to be paid a living wage

I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

This academic year, there has been a resurgence in student protests on campuses across the country. One key demand – voiced at the “cops off campus” protest in London in December 2013 and in a series of occupations – has been for all university staff to be paid a living wage, currently set at £8.80 an hour in London and £7.65 elsewhere. As a final-year student, about to enter the workplace, I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

The voices of students and staff are being ignored while tuition fees continue to rise and courses are closing. Last year, for example, 24 universities shut down all specialist language degrees.

Some of the lowest-paid university staff are on zero-hours contracts and earn the minimum wage of £6.31 an hour. At the same time, a survey of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading research universities, revealed that its vice-chancellors got an 8 per cent pay rise in 2012-2013, receiving an average of £318,500 last year (once pension payments are taken into consideration).

At the University of Birmingham, where I study, it took two occupations, two injunctions against students, five disciplinaries, five suspensions, several picket lines and a handful of court hearings before the university’s senior management grudgingly agreed that the living wage would be paid to all staff from August this year.

Despite this success, university staff have had a 13 per cent cut in pay in real terms since 2009. A marking boycott that was due to begin on 6 May was called off when staff were offered a 2 per cent pay rise for the next academic year. It had been organised by the University and College Union (UCU), which had initially demanded at least a 3.6 per cent rise from employers. The Times reported that some universities had warned staff that their pay would be docked by 100 per cent if they participated in the marking boycott. This could help explain why 84 per cent of UCU members voted to call off the boycott and accept a smaller increase, even though the 2 per cent pay rise will still leave staff wages declining in real terms.

It is important that staff know their students support them in their fight for fair pay. In true millennial fashion, students took to the internet to back the boycott. A YouTube clip called “UK Students Back UCU Marking Boycott” was circulated on Twitter under the hashtag #IBackTheBoycott. In the video, students outline the wider impact of wage disparity in higher education, including an increase in the gender pay gap and the extra strain placed on PhD students, which can lead to mental-health problems.

The living wage and a 2 per cent pay rise for staff are steps in the right direction but they are not enough. Students’ education will suffer if they are taught by overworked and underpaid staff. A few missed lectures or delays in getting essay marks back is a small price to pay.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.