Thursday, 15 February 2018

Open Letter to Professor Chris Day, Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University

Below is a now-open letter to Professor Chris Day, Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, first sent at 11.10 am on Thursday 15th February 2018. The framing context is the planned strike action by University and College Union (UCU) members regarding changes to their pensions. Beginning with a one-day strike next Thursday, 22nd February, strikes will increase incrementally until week commencing 12th March, and/or until Universities UK (UUK) agree to further rounds of talks, thus allowing UCU-striking staff to return to ordinary teaching and administrative duties.

The UCU strikes are yet to make many ripples with local or national news, despite 60 ‘pre-1992’ institutions being involved. The wider scenario surrounding the dispute is difficult to comprehend, but boils down to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which would see the average UCU member’s annual retirement income cut by £10,000 a year.

I attended a meeting led by academics in the School of English yesterday where much of the intricacies and apparent rationale on the part of UUK for the changes were outlined. Gratifyingly, there was a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students in attendance, testament to the bigger picture which overshadows the dispute: namely, a widespread – and growing – scepticism towards market fundamentalism pervading higher education.

Professor Day is hosting an open forum event on Friday, which I hope to attend. Having done so, and listened to his and the University Executive Board’s side of the story, I will report back. If you are a student – and not necessarily a student at one of the sixty universities taking industrial action – I would urge you to read up about an issue which, in the short-term could be hugely disruptive during the spring term, but more importantly in the long-term, could terminally wound lecturers’ ability and desire to carry out their important public roles as facilitators of knowledge exchange. My letter, in full:

Dear Chris,

I am writing out of grave concern for the current situation regarding the imminent strike action planned by UCU members. As a PhD student currently enrolled in my third year of study within the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University, I feel obliged to state my solidarity with those colleagues who have been forced into these measures as a last resort. I, like them, hope that this predicament can be resolved swiftly and fairly.

I would be grateful if you could explain what actions you and the Executive Board are taking to ameliorate the situation.

As a postgraduate researcher supported by the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership (and not – yet – I should add, a UCU member) I have nothing to gain in the short- to medium-term in supporting the strike, but as a concerned individual – one who anticipates a future career within the academy – I am deeply uncomfortable with the proposed changes to the USS pension system. If seen through, these changes would not only make my own, and many colleagues’, retirement significantly more difficult, they would fundamentally undermine our collective endeavour as committed, knowledge-sharing intellectuals who strive, in numerous ways, to improve the world and our understanding of it.

What impetus has an Early Career Researcher to pursue a vocation in which it appears his or her talent, skills and critical judgements will slowly be eroded by draconian measures borne not out of academic best practice, but apparently-arbitrarily-arrived-at projections and worst-case scenarios?

As a born and bred Sanddancer and resident of South Tyneside, I am proud to attend my local university, Newcastle, where I enjoy the benefits of excellent facilities and the expertise of myriad world-leading experts, the majority of whom are committed to scholarly practice and lifelong learning in a co-operative environment. Newcastle University really is a huge asset to the North-East, but its benefits are not strictly financial. My suspicion is that, in not supporting the UCU members’ desire for further talks with UUK, you are only exacerbating the market-driven model of Higher Education which so many young people in our region and beyond have been burdened by and which so many academics – not to mention ‘ordinary people’ – have rightly criticised.

Reading the University’s Vision and Values, it is difficult to disagree with the sentiments. However, I feel that, without your support for the UCU members who only wish to divulge their specialism and share their passion with the next generation of students, Newcastle University cannot honestly claim to be a ‘civic university with a global reputation for academic excellence’.

I look forward to your open forum event on Friday, where I hope my concerns will be allayed and my friends and peers who have elected to take such drastic moves can get back to teaching their students safe in the knowledge that they – both students and teachers – are not being taken for granted.

At risk of lecturing somebody whose academic credentials supersede my own, I would just like to leave you with the following thought. Like all great institutions, a university is comprised of mutual relationships between people striving towards common goals. The success of those institutions cannot, truly, be measured by how profitable they are, but by the support structures they put in place to enable and encourage all of their members to dream big and achieve.

Yours sincerely,

Jake Campbell.

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