A letter to my students

As you will know, the University and College Union have called a strike. As a union member I will be striking. I believe you deserve an explanation, so I would like to set out my view of the issues at stake.

I hope you will understand that striking is a difficult decision. None of us want to strike. I have spent a lot of time preparing my teaching (much of it beyond my contracted hours), I thoroughly enjoy our sessions, and I want all of you to get the most out of studying with me. Nevertheless, this action has become necessary because of the uncompromising stance of Universities UK, the body which represents universities as employers.

The strike is in response to a decision by UUK regarding staff pensions. Without going into technicalities (for more information, see this UCU webpage), the value of an average individual pension will fall by an estimated £200,000. This decision has been taken without our consent, and UUK have refused to negotiate with our union. UUK’s justification for this action rests on statistics which have been challenged (see this excellent discussion), and in fact they have used contradictory statistics to support different claims (as discussed in this open letter by Reading’s UCU branch). I am sure you can guess what would happen if you took such an inconsistent approach to the evidence in one of your assignments.

There is also a wider context here. Due to a combination of minimal pay rises and inflation, across the sector academic staff have experienced a real-terms pay cut of around 14% since 2009 (see here and here), while university managers’ salaries have risen and are now, on average, over £250,000 p.a. (see here). During this period universities have also introduced more and more temporary, casualised, and exploitative contracts, especially for junior staff (see here). Some universities have set up subsidiary companies to manage their staff and have been criticised for these employment practices (see here). This squeeze on staff has occurred even though the sector as a whole is ‘in a financially sound position’ according to HEFCE, with a surplus of £1.5 billion, almost double what it was just a few years ago (see here).

These trends represent both the logic and the results of commercialisation. Though student fees have sky-rocketed, staff in higher education are expected to do more and more with less and less support, while at the same time facing continual and mounting pressure to secure funding for and deliver high-quality research.

I am therefore striking not just because UUK’s decision on our pensions is unacceptable, but because I believe that academia needs to change – for our sake, and for yours. The UK’s higher education sector will struggle to maintain its traditionally excellent standards under the current circumstances. As the working conditions and security of staff deteriorate, so our teaching (and our research) will deteriorate, which will ultimately harm our students.

A university is more than just an institution, a campus, a brand, or a business. It is a community, and a university’s greatest value lies in its people – students and staff of all kinds. Only by supporting both students and staff will universities achieve their goals. It is time for UUK to remember this, and for the sector as a whole to treat its people better.


Agreements of the People

Britain’s seventeenth century history has lumbered into the news this week, with the High Court of Justice’s judgment that, according to the law of this country, the government cannot trigger the EU-exiting Article 50 without direct parliamentary approval. Two of the key precedents cited by the judges are the writings of Sir Edward Coke, an influential early-seventeenth-century constitutional lawyer, and the Bill of Rights, which was produced after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9. Both state that parliament is the sovereign maker of law in Britain, and are therefore the only ones who can change the law. These documents were originally produced in very specific contexts, and certainly not everyone at that time would have agreed with them (least of all ‘divine-right-of-kings’ Charles I, who literally lost his head over this matter), but their enduring legacy evidently cannot be denied.

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All Aboard


The figurehead of the Batavia.

I have wanted to vist the Bataviawerf since I learned about it some years ago, and researching in the Netherlands finally gave me the chance to go. It is a museum in Lelystad, northeast of Amsterdam on the shores of the Zuiderzee, based around a replica of the Dutch East India Company ship the Batavia (if you want a quick introduction, there is a handy In Our Time episode from last March about the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC).

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Boaty McWhoseface? Or, some thoughts on ships’ names

You must have heard of it – the online poll to name a polar scientific research vessel, won by a humorous (but, it must be said, not particularly inspired) choice that is considerably less august and impressive than the Natural Environment Research Council were probably hoping for. As it turns out that the voice of the people may be ignored and some other name chosen, it is being taken as a parable about democracy in our time. On a slightly different note, over at the History@Manchester blog Linda Briggs has written about the rituals with which early modern French monarchs and merchants named their ships. This seemed to me a good excuse to borrow the idea and take a look at early modern ship-naming in Britain and Europe more generally.
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The water is too deep

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, so I’ll try to get it going again by posting about some of the research I am currently doing in the Netherlands (I’ll be digging around the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Dutch national archives for the next few months). I’m here looking for evidence about sailors from Britain and Ireland during the seventeenth century, and what they got up to in another country. Did they take work on Dutch ships, or with institutions like the navy or the various trading companies? What kinds of relationships did they form with people and communities in the Netherlands? I hope that by building up a picture of their activities from the perspectives offered in Dutch records I can complement my research in British collections, and start to think about questions like how much national identities mattered to sailors.

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Toe-dipping in the mainstream

These days, academics are encouraged to appeal to big audiences. We are told that we must have ‘impact’ (teaching 2.2 million university students doesn’t seem to count, oddly enough – but let’s leave that for another time). Just over a fortnight ago I had my first proper taste of this when I got involved in a collective letter published in History Today, whose readership and twitter followers represent a much bigger audience than I am likely to reach through my academic writing and teaching. Continue reading

Fame, fortune, and footnotes

The next issue of The American Historical Review, out in April, will contain an exchange concerning the History Manifesto; it is already available on the American Historical Association website. To my surprise (and I am grateful to Brodie Waddell for noticing this), one of the footnotes cites my review of the Manifesto on this blog from October last year. That review is my most popular post to date, no doubt helped by links to it appearing on the Manifesto website, and David Armitage’s webpage about the book. Even so, when I started this blog I never thought it would be mentioned in a serious historical journal dating back to 1895, which has the highest ‘impact factor’ of any journal in the field, according to Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports. Nor did I foresee that it would lead to my name being immortalised in print (which is still more permanent than online content) next to the word ‘historywomble’. Though that should perhaps have been more predictable.

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Counting Historians

Recently, for the first time and with the help of patient friends (especially Simon Abernethy and Edmond Smith), I’ve been working on some research that involves quite a bit of statistical analysis. As a result I have started thinking more about this kind of approach to other problems and so, when I came across the Data for Research page of the journal website JSTOR, it seemed well worth investigating.

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