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March 12th, 2018:

Interview with a Dinosaur

Today, the Dinosaur of Solidarity met with SUSU’s Arun Aggarwal, the VP Student Communities, and gave him an exclusive interview.  Below is an edited transcript, but for the full dinotastic experience (including Dinah throwing some rawrsome shapes), you can catch up with the full interview on video.

  1. What does a Dinosaur of Solidarity do?

I see my role primarily as drawing large scale attention to the attack on staff pensions.  I am quite large and I have been told I am a bit shouty. Basically I want staff here to have the decent pension they were promised.  Universities UK and some VCs of our Universities want to replace our defined benefit pension with an inferior defined contribution scheme that represents a 10-40% cut in deferred salary. My slogan is don’t let the pension go extinct.

 

  1. So what is a typical day for you on strike

I get up and eat some porridge – I need the slow release energy throughout the day because being a Dinosaur of Solidarity burns the calories. I then join a local picket at Highfield or Avenue or SGH. I do a bit of shouting.  Sometimes if the pickets re really good I do my special Dino picket for pension dance.  I’ve been working on it at the weekend.  Then I have some lunch – usually a salad – and I go to one of our teach outs. This week we have protest song writing with the Music Department – on Thursday – looking forward to that

 

  1. What are the parts of your role that are most directly relevant to students at the University of Southampton

I love students. I couldn’t eat a whole one because I am vegetarian now.  But I want them to get the best education they can. Demoralised devalued staff who have suffered real term pay cuts, casualization, increasing workloads and now this cut to our pension cannot deliver excellent education.  Students here have been Dino-tastic in their support of this strike action – they understand that their staff need a decent pension.

 

  1. I’d like to know about your time as a student, what do you miss ?

I was a student a long time ago. Can’t say how long ago it was cos then you’d work out how old I am, and a dinosaur never tells. But if I say first Ice Age you’ll have an idea. I studied when you didn’t have to pay – there were no student fees or those horrible student loans.  That’s another thing that makes me angry – a bunch of people who got free higher education have stolen it from a generation. Grrr.

There were polytechnics back then.  I went to one of those. It was great. I loved it. I often say it transformed my life.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without those awesome teachers.  I miss the days before fees when people from all walks of life could do education without paying.

  1. Were there any student union clubs or societies you joined?

Well obviously archaeology club. Love a bit of digging up ancestors, that kind of thing. And the choir. I love a sing.

  1. Southampton offers a broad range off degrees if you could start now what would it be?

Oh that’s a tough one. I’m a bit of a polymath. I like so many things. I like to stretch myself.  I suppose I’d like to learn finance and accounting and maybe do an MBA so that I could help the poor leadership of Universities UK, you know help them get their sums about the pension right.

I like to stretch myself and I don’t let my small brain or short arms hold me back so if I’mhonest what I’d really like to do is learn to knit.  I was hoping I could do that when I retired but I am not sure I can afford the wool if we don’t get the pension back.

  1. One last question before I let you go back to the strike – what are your hobbies?

I mostly like reading with my family and resting after a hard day working at the University. If I haven’t got marking or stuff to do.  I’ve go a big family so mostly I like reading. I like those Dinobird books – reading to the little dinos. They’ve learn lots of new words like ‘anti trade union legislation’ ‘expenses’ and ‘Pornstar Martinis’ from those books.

Another Monday. Another strike day.

If you are a recent UCU joiner, you are one of the 30% of new members we have welcomed since the action began – hello, and nice to meet you. Please come and introduce yourself, and join us on the picket lines!

This is day 10 of the longest, most sustained higher education strike I can remember and I have been in UCU (and before, its predecessor. AUT) for nearly 30 years.

I don’t know about you but I am exhausted and desperate to go back to work. It is draining being on the picket line, despite the collegiality and the strong sense of shared purpose.  The teach-outs have shown how wonderful teaching and learning can be, but they also remind us that this is where we want to be, doing education.  For others, research deadlines loom, and projects are being damaged. And our academic-related colleagues have had to watch as processes, systems and projects they have nurtured and developed begin to unravel.

ASOS has been an eye opener, too – we all knew we took home work and did extra on top of our contracted hours, but being asked to work your hours really brings that into focus – as have the messages from senior managers telling us to prioritise two-thirds of our workloads on non-strike days. In other words, the SMT appear to have conceded that we are overloaded.

It has been salutary to engage with our students about the value of education, about bigger issues such as fees and loans and VCs pay, and to talk about the damage that marketization has wrought on our once world-leading University system.  It has been wonderful to have their support – individually, and via SUSU – despite the fact that the impact of the strike is felt first by them.

We have achieved a lot, but we are not at the finish line.  UUK reluctantly agreed to talk at ACAS. The debate about our pensions has been broadened. We have significant public and political support.  The evidence base from which to challenge UUK decision making is larger and stronger. There are signs that UUK may be beginning to listen.

But…

We have to be aware that all the way through this dispute a handful of powerful VCs and some hardliners in UUK have pushed to destroy our pension and break the promises we were made. Our own VC has chosen not to align with those who are calling for an alternative proposal that would preserve defined benefits. He has not publically distanced himself from the questionable data about the scheme, or the dubious decision-making processes that we have discovered are at the heart of these damaging pension proposals.  Other universities’ SMTs are finding ways to reduce the impact of the strike on their most precarious staff, but we have been told that we are the authors of our own misfortune, and that we should “reflect” on the harm we’ve done (to the students who are supporting us day in, day out).

We have to maintain the pressure by continuing to strike this week.  If UUK sense that our resolve has been weakened by their delaying tactics they will not up their offer.  Our UCU negotiators will fight for the best deal we can achieve, but they can only do that if they can point to our strike action.  For that reason we are asking you once again to join us on the picket lines, to refuse to work and to maintain the strike.

There will be pickets on campuses from 8am each day. If you have not signed up to a rota slot, please call in at the office at 47 University Road and we will deploy you to a picket line.

We have also arranged teach-outs again this week:  here’s the schedule:

 

Mon 12 March

2-4pm

SUSU meeting room 2

Level 1 B42

An audience with the Dinosaur of Solidarity – tbc
Tues 13 March

 

2-4pm

SUSU meeting room 2                       Level 1 B42 What is education for?  An open discussion – Lucy Watson

In an age of increasing student debt where ’employability’ has become the benchmark for the success of a programme, students are finding themselves in the difficult position of having to decide what courses deliver the best ‘value for money’. This session will focus on the recent marketization of HE and explore some of its intentional and unintentional results.

Weds 14 March

 

2-4pm

Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening How have digital technologies and social media changed activism? – Silke Roth

In this teach-out we look at the relationship between online and offline activism. We look at online media as a game changer and have a look at the affordances of social media, at repertoires of digital activism and the fragility of networked action. We will consider slacktivism and how ‘digital prefigurative action’ can lead to the participation in offline protest events.

Thurs 15 March

2-4pm

Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening Music Workshop

“WA Mozart, Casual Employee?” – Tom Irvine

“The Arts, the War on the Welfare State and the end of Keynsian Economics” – Andrew Pinnock

“How to Improvise a Protest Song” (with audience participation) – Andy Fisher

 

Fri 16 March 2-4pm Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening Workshop: The ethics of taking strike action: principles, consequences and care
Taking strike action entails struggling with competing duties and responsibilities, thinking through and articulating why one principle trumps another, calculating the short and long terms costs and benefits, and taking practical actions with other people. This interactive workshop will offer an opportunity to explore these ideas and introduce concepts to build on over the coming weeks and months, as we reflect on what a university is and what being an academic and professional in higher education means to each of us.

We know many of you are worried about the financial impact of the strike – we have a local hardship fund in addition to the national strike pay so we will do our best to mitigate this, prioritising our lowest paid colleagues and those in casualised, precarious posts.

If you wish to donate to the fund the details are:

UCU Southampton 71 Hardship Fund
Account number: 20391537
Sort code: 60-83-01

This message has been posted on our blog but also sent to the all members email list as we know that some people are reading their soton.ac.uk accounts. if you are reading your work email please, please do not work while the strike is on.  If there is a meaningful proposal from UUK the action will be suspended, but we really must keep up the pressure or our efforts since 22 February will be in vain.

I know that you are fed up with striking and with ASOS. I know you are angry with UUK, with our University governance and our senior managers – rightly so, for they have all contributed to this situation. I know you are tired of striking.

I want to remind you that we are the University. UUK, the VC, the senior managers, the lay members of Council, are not the University. They do not do the things that you do to keep higher education and research going at this University.  We are standing together – with our students – and we are saying no to the broken promises about our pension.

I’d like to end by saying that while this message will be signed by me, your branch VP, this action to defend pensions here is the work of an inspirational collective.  Members of UCU at Southampton have the most brilliant branch executive.  I cannot tell you how grateful I have been to them over the past month. They have pulled together; we have supported each other and our members, and collectively responded to all manner of issues ranging from last minute requests from management for a detailed risk assessments for our joint union rally, to managing picket lines through some of the worst weather we have ever had in this city, to crafting petitions and open letters to try to influence the debate locally and nationally.  We may be tired but we are also blessed. I am hopeful that we will win. We just have to stay strong, stand together and hold the strike a little longer.

See you on the picket lines.

Catherine Pope
Vice-President, Southampton UCU