Reflections 3 – Our University: Some Thoughts on the UCU strike

The front windows of KCL’s Strand campus present fifty famous people who have some association with the college. For the most part, it is an honourable roll-call of former students and teachers who went on to do useful and remarkable things. Ivison Macadam, the founder of NUS; Cicely Saunders, who started the world’s first purpose-built hospice; archbishop Desmond Tutu. A notable exception is Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who neither studied nor taught at King’s, whose role in setting up the institution is sometimes exaggerated and who was one of the most reactionary prime ministers in British history. His direct descendant, Charles Wellesley, 9th duke of Wellington, was chairman of the college’s governing council from 2007 to 2015. Like his ancestor, he neither taught nor studied there (his wife, princess Antonia of Prussia, is an alumna) but did preside over a period of increasing student fees and stagnating academic wages.

One of the council’s current members is the principal, Edward Byrne. With academics’ pensions under threat, his six-figure salary has become an emblem of what is wrong with the institution. On Tuesday, under the gaze of Macadam, Saunders and Tutu, striking lecturers held placards comparing him to Mr Burns, the billionaire megalomaniac from the Simpsons. The enormous wealth of Byrne and vice-chancellors around the country makes the suggestion that academics should lose about £10,000 a year of their final pensions especially difficult to accept. It also gives students a sense that their astronomical fees are not necessarily being spent in ways which directly benefit their education. Student unions have encouraged their members to stand in solidarity with those on strike, and the response – if Tuesday’s picket line on the Strand is representative – has been impressive.

But the most obvious disparity is between the salaries of vice-chancellors and those of cleaning, catering and security staff. At King’s, Justice for Cleaners are campaigning against outsourcing, exploitative contracts and appalling working conditions. As campaigners have often pointed out, KCL has one of the best medical schools in the world, but its cleaners, often female migrants, are exposed to long-term health risks with little or no protection. Without these people, the university would collapse into chaos within days or even hours. Without students and academics, it simply would not exist. ‘We are the university’ was a refrain from all groups on Tuesday’s picket line. The managers, from Wellesley to Byrne and the rest, could hardly say the same.


Jonah Miller is a second-year Phd student in the Department of History at KCL and an editor at the Still Point Journal.

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