Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Why are students so strongly against the AUT/NATFHE marking boycott?

A post on NewerLabour about "Why have students turned on the AUT?" links to here and I composed a reply. However as it's very long, I thought it best to post it here.

after the solidarity the AUT/NATFHE showed with us over fees (they could have benefited from the contra), the worst thing for us to do would be to stab them in the back

I think there are several reasons, some obvious, some less so, for this. And in several ways it just reflects the very real wider problems for students and their representative bodies as a whole.

First off, the most recent public battle on fees was a couple of years ago. The student life span is such that many of those who campaigned against fees have either now graduated or are sitting their finals. In turn a lot of first and second years know very little of who backed the anti fees campaign at the time. The more recent campaign has not yet caught the mainstream media's attention so most students are probably completely unaware of it and so do not think they have anything to reciprocate solidarity for.

Secondly, there is a large level of non-participation in students' union and student campaigns - I do not think I'm exactly breaking any great secret. For every student we may personally know of who did something, whether sign a petition or come on a demonstration, in the anti-fees campaign there are at least two (and usually more) who did not. Whatever the reasons we again have a large volume of students for whom the AUT/NATFHE position on fees goes over their head in all this.

Thirdly on a more general point, the concept of "solidarity" is one that increasingly few students understand or agree with these days. Most would rather reason the point for themselves, not give blank cheque support.

Fourthly, the AUT/NATFHE have not done very well in actively seeking student support. There are many reports of local students' unions being told by their AUT branches (I'm not aware of any NATFHE cases) that because "the NUS" is supporting the action (although the recent BBC coverage suggests to me that the NUS leadership are trying to play down any firm position one way or the other, probably in preparation for any formal change in position or as a tactical move to see off the threats of disaffiliations) the local SU cannot oppose it. From what I've seen neither the lecturers' unions themselves nor NUS have made much of an effort to promote support for the boycott amongst students. Even the NUS response to the opinion poll revealed this - they would rather the poll questions had included certain "facts" which they think would have delivered a majority for action.

We also have the way that students' unions are increasingly divided - one tally of announced positions today has found 38 against, 35 supporting, 8 neutral, 4 unaffected (due to the universities not being in the national pay framework) and 36 whose position couldn't be determined from their website (if they have one) or who haven't signed any letters of support/opposition. Tellingly in the pre 92 sector the declarations have a clear majority of opposition, whilst in the post 92 sector a majority support, suggesting that the NATFHE experience (where the setting of exams is still going on) is not provoking such an outcry compared to the AUT experience. With more and more students' unions taking a public position, the supposed national voice of the NUS is bypassed. We also have the petitions that show rather more students signing against the action than in favour (3372 on Petition against the AUT boycott and 2827 on Give Us Our Marks compared to 99 on SUPPORT OUR LECTURERS: DON’T LET THE BOSSES DIVIDE US!). I am not aware of any other petition in favour of the action. I think it's telling that most on educationet who argue that the boycott has strong student support are forced to challenge the opinion poll methodology and issues with the petitions, rather than pointing to alternative polls and petitions.

(There is also the issue of the way the NUS leadership decided to support the action, with the National Conference not even discussing it. Whilst very few students on the ground would have felt in any way bound by a conference vote, it has given weight to those opposing the boycott who attack the NUS position as out of touch, indirectly leading to some of the polls and surveys. It also may in the long run lead to the NUS breaking up. But normally the NUS is taken to be speaking for the students. However, on this one more and more has come out that suggests otherwise.)

I do not want to belabour this point to much as it is a bit on a tangent from actually student opinion. But I'll repeat my words from a post of mine on ednet:

"It's a two way process - a representative democracy only works when the representatives recognise that they cannot get too out of line with the wishes of those they represent. The represented invariably tolerate much distraction or expert consideration and so forth, but when it comes to huge issues they expect their opinions to be taken into account. Leadership requires two things - those who are willing & able to lead and those who are willing & able to be led. Leadership that goes it alone can work but requires strong levels of trust and respect to be given the benefit of the doubt. When that trust is lacking such leaderships crash."

however, students graduating now have thought in the short term, and turned against the strike.

Even if every finalist was against the action, they only account for at most 25% of the student body (and probably less once I get my figures sorted). Where does the rest of the 77% come from?

How selfish. we are endangering the prospects of future students.

Again, this is a point that has not really been sold very well at all. Whether it would have swung minds is hard to say - there are many other factors involved. Also most students (about 68% according to the same opinion poll) support the pay claims - just not this method of seeking them. The case that the one is essential for the other is not shared by many.

In summary, have students "turned" on the AUT? I am not sure they were all "with" the AUT to start with. Most of the students' unions who have come out against the boycott have been responding to student opinion and the pressing situation (which, if anything, is increasing as students reach the times when exams should have been set and marked - maybe the poll underestimated student opinion, being taken about a month ago) but I question whether most students in any way actually feel they owe the AUT much.


El Tom said...

Hi Tim, thanks for a very well written and excellently considered issue, though I fully appreciate that this is quite a big issue for you at the momment!

I think you have basically unmasked a sentiment that is influencing me at the moment, though I support the strike itself. The impetus is, it seems, that the unions are not treading very wisely in their own interest, because they are coming off as far too anti students.

Though i support the right to withdraw labour, when democratically mandated, I can't help feeling that the outright refusal to set exams in some institutionns pushes things too far, and is a really bad call on behalf of the union leadership, because they know students will hate it.

Other problems seem to be rooted in the nature of the student, and of the NUS.

Students are in a position of short-termism with regards to student interests... the current generation, for example, seem to have been 'sold out' by the last; the cycle will go on. I think this, on a side point, is a large part of the reason that students are easy targets; they know that we don't support each other, are apathetic, individualistic, and have little community sentiment (Thatcher's generation Tim!) ;o)

Also, because the NUS seems to really believe it is a trade union, it acts accordingly, even when the vast majority of students don't agree with it. same goes for individual unions. On the other hand, you could just say that it avoiids crude populism (and the short of short term (and often selfish, though understandable) thinking I have described).

Is it a union? or is it there to represent?

sigh. If only we could have both.

I personally cannot wait for this whole thing to be over. There are a lot of trots out there who won't be satisfied with that...

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

they know that we don't support each other, are apathetic, individualistic, and have little community sentiment (Thatcher's generation Tim!) ;o)

The dates of birth for nearly all the students I've had to look up this past two weeks (working as an exam attendant) all suggest that they're too young to remember Thatcher! And for the record I'm by no means a Thatcherite.

Students are individualist but so too is a lot of the university experience. Whether it's modular degrees, choice about types of accommodation, freedom to chose what they eat, freedom of dress, freedom of choice as to what to do in the evenings and so forth, there is far more variation than in earlier days. When my undergrad/masters uni (Kent) was founded in the 1960s the intention was for a very uniform experience - everyone living in identical rooms on campus, set formal dinners, a lot of degrees being full of compulsory courses with little or no moudle choice and so forth. 30+ years later and almost all of that had gone (although the catered breakfast was still a non optional part of living in halls in my day, though I understand this has since been altered).

I don't think the vast bulk of students are apathetic - I think for one reason or another a lot of existing models are not suitable for measuring today's students. Many still take an interest in world affairs and do sign petitions, donate money, go on demonstrations and so forth for these causes - but few do so through the students' union. Many others care about the local community and so forth. Many do volunteering work. But because there are many ways to achieve these things other than going along to a union meeting or voting in student elections, many get listed as "apathetic" because they are not slotting into very traditional forms of "participation".

There is a strong degree of short termism - in particular the fees battle has always been difficult to motivate people because they don't think their own fees will be cancelled. Sometimes the "you will have to pay for your children" works, sometimes the "you will need qualified doctors" works, sometimes other methods, sometimes nothing. Also one faces a lot of non participation in particular campaigns because of the perception that "what's done is done" and can't be reversed, or they don't think it's a pressing issue (not all students are aware of the ways campaigns work by maintaining steady pressure, even if not always getting media attention, so that come a focal point the media is already won over which is a big step). But also a lot of students wonder if there are other ways to achieve things - again this comes back to a general failing on AUT/NATFHE to sell their action as "the only way".

We also have an increasingly consumerist student base. When one is in large debt to be at university one does expect certain levels of service and you are going to be pretty POed with those who are responsible for stopping you getting what you paid for.

As for the basic nature of NUS, there are serious questions that need answering about this whole affair. In particular the use of time and the relevance of the national conference needs addressing, as one of the issues that can be dealt with early on. Although people have explained the logistics, few have defended the conference not discussing the boycott when there was an emergency motion tabled, which almost certainly would have been granted time if the conference floor had been allowed to vote on the matter in that way. The big question is whether NUS is going to quickly reform not only this but also how it actually interacts with students and students' unions in time, or whether there will be sufficient disaffiliations that devastate it financially. Disaffiliation referendums in the autumn term, combining anti AUT/NATFHE feeling with potential outrage over paying for NUS Extra (and possibly more and more students discovering they don't need an NUS card) could make the outcomes of such referendums a lot harder to predict than before.


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