On Universities: Roundtable

What is a university for? Even for those outside of the higher education sector, this is a question that’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. In February and March this year, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) organised fourteen days of strike action over a four week period, which saw staff and students standing on picket lines in freezing weather conditions, mass marches and rallies through campuses and city centres, and a significant rise in union branch membership across the UK. Primarily, the strike was about pensions, but it soon became apparent that the industrial action represented a resistance to the encroaching neoliberal agenda in higher education more broadly, as banners on the picket line borrowed from Mark Fisher: ‘Against the slow cancellation of the future’. The pensions issue itself — the proposal from Universities UK (UUK) to transform the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme — is symptomatic of the increasing marketisation of the university. The former guarantees its members a retirement income; the latter depends on the stock market, and represents a loss of between 10 and 40 per cent for staff. UUK, which describes itself as ‘the voice of universities’, is an organisation of the vice chancellors or principals of higher education institutions, who have seen their own pay more than quadruple in less than 20 years. Meanwhile, staff pay has seen a real terms decline since 2009, and pensions, particularly in the public sector, are deferred wages: the proposed changes provided proof, if proof were needed, of the political agenda behind the current drive to reform British universities.


This discussion took place just after the vote to suspend strike action was passed, and inevitably, we had a lot to discuss. Along-side the more visible scandals of the past few years — Toby Young’s appointment to the Office for Students springs immediately to mind, and the ongoing right-wing media attack on campus no-platform policies — university staff are increasingly on some variation of an insecure contract, something that actively works against the diversification of the academic workplace. The Home Office crackdown on student visas and the introduction of the controversial Prevent Duty, which in practice consistently targets Muslim and BME students, raises serious questions about the duty of care owed to students by university management. The removal of the cap on tuition fees, the abolition of maintenance grants and the establishment of the REF and TEF — the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks, respectively, which rank institution’s output in order to justify ‘better’ universities charging higher fees — place an ever-increasing emphasis on value for money, and transform students into consumers.


Something we returned to several times during our discussion was how best to recognise that students and staff, despite attempts to pit them against each other, are being harmed by the same system. Teaching and administrative staff striking together provided a visible reminder of the other kinds of work universities rely on, something often overlooked in coverage of the dispute. Academics have traditionally been reluctant to conceive of themselves as workers; the working to contract implemented on non-strike days forced some staff to redefine their relationship to labour. Our conversation dwelt for a long time on notions of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘vocation’: if universities rely upon unwaged labour and ‘good-
will’, how can staff resist? And how can we stop ourselves passing on bad habits to students through self-renouncing examples? The current government believes departments should be ranked on their graduates’ future earning potential: how can we help students grapple with their economic anxieties whilst simultaneously rejecting this co-option of education by market forces?


My own position, both in the context of the strikes and in academia as a whole, is marginal: I’m both a student and a worker, splitting my time — and, it sometimes feels like, my allegiances— between writing my PhD thesis and supervising undergraduates.
A common feeling amongst others I’ve spoken to in this position was of a heightening of precarity: an awareness, even in the midst of uplifting solidarity on the picket line, that you weren’t quite a colleague, and that the idea that you might one day have a secure contract, let alone a pension, feels dangerously hopeful. The turbulence of the past few months has both provided a sense of optimism that another university might be possible — a collective social good, accessible to all — and revealed the extent of the systematic and structural change that needs to happen in order to fulfil that promise.






HELEN CHARMAN – In the aftermath of the strike, do you feel at all optimistic about the situation facing universities in the UK?


MATTHEW BEAUMONT – One of the crises for higher education in the last twenty or thirty years has been in governance: the increasingly corporate managerial structures and the marginalisation both of academics as administrators and of democratically accountable forms of governance. So one of the things I found really encouraging about the strike was the solidarity, the collegiality… It seemed to me there was something very hopeful to be excavated from the way in which striking colleagues related to each other, for the most part, certainly in my institution, in a non-judgemental, non-vindictive way, to non-striking colleagues as well as amongst themselves. I think that momentum has to be continued, that momentum has to be pushed through, whatever else happens, whether there are further strikes and industrial action over pensions, over pay, whatever…


VAHNI CAPILDEO – I’m by no means an expert, partly because being on short-term contracts and not always in academia, this has been the first time I have taken part in a protest action in the UK rather than in the Global South. I don’t really see the strike as being over. I mean, this particular strike has been called off, and there has been a sort of de-subscribing from email lists etcetera, but there is an awakening of interest amongst persons both sympathetic and not sympathetic to the view of education as a good in itself. I think awakening of interest is bound to be a thing – both a good and a bad thing. I suppose the third point I would make, which is a little bit fussy and anecdotal, is I didn’t really experience solidarity at the picket lines. I experienced quite extraordinary levels of direct racism and sexism such as I haven’t been used to.


BEAUMONT – Christ.


WASEEM YAQOOB – That is really shocking.


CAPILDEO – I don’t think it is shocking, it is normal.


BEAUMONT – From fellow strikers or from people passing the picket line or passing through the picket line?


CAPILDEO – From fellow strikers.


CHARMAN – I had a few sexist comments from people crossing the picket line.


YAQOOB – We had to issue instructions to our pickets not to heckle people passing through, and some of the things said were sexist. So obviously things that happen in the everyday were happening on the picket lines too. I suppose one of the hopeful things I found about the strikes is that there’s been a lot of discontent for as long as I’ve been at the university, which isn’t very long, but long enough to remember when the higher education reforms to marketise the sector came in. One of the frustrations of organising as a union organiser was a sense that there weren’t many types of action that would be appropriate to bring lots of things to the forefront of whatever struggles were going on: marketisation, racism, sexual harassment and so on. One of the frustrations was the sense that a strike over something that’s strictly about pay or benefits wouldn’t really bring all of these struggles together. And I think what was really great about this dispute was that it took the lid off – it let lots of people come out through teach-outs, through conversations on the picket line, and organise on lots and lots of different fronts. I hope the legacy of that can continue. But as Vahni said, it also brought out lots of fractures and conflicts along racial and sexual and gender lines that were already there, and unions have always had problems with these things, so there is a lot of work to do.
The second thing I would say is, no. I’m not that hopeful because one of the significant battles has been about reform across the whole sector – competition, marketisation. The Office of Students was finally set up late last year and we can see in that how the government has an authoritarian, market-based vision for universities. It’s not clear to me how strike action in its traditional form is going to repel those attacks. We need to find new ways of resisting.


BEAUMONT – I’m not excessively sanguine about the future, but one of the great strengths of the strike was that it wasn’t a narrowly economic one, in terms of its issues. It was very political, and the conversations and debates that happened on the picket line, among both strikers and non-striking colleagues, were highly politicised. They weren’t just about the marketisation, monetisation and privatisation of higher education, but
about the neoliberal dispensation more broadly. Of course, there’s only grounds for political optimism if our struggle is tied into a broader political movement – one that attempts systematically to unite generations, to unite across class, race, gender divisions, in a struggle against austerity and the economic regime that underpins them. To unite against the devastating attack on the public sector, on the very notion of the public, that has taken place in the forty years since Margaret Thatcher came to power.






CAPILDEO – There wasn’t actually a huge amount of debate with the students who I encountered on the picket line. There were very very many crossing the picket line to go to university. They refused leaflets with what I thought, speaking as a poet rather than as a very recent union member, was an interesting phrase: ‘I’m okay.’ Of course it’s a colloquialism, but it was interesting because on the one hand there is a culture of sensitivity, where a student might complain if an individual person is under attack, but there is also a culture of being armoured. This idea that you are okay, that you can’t bear to question the fundamental principles around which your existence is organised, because by doing so you might have to admit to a lack of control.


BEAUMONT – You’re right. That’s an interesting symptomatic response, not least as symptomatic of the well-documented transformation of students into consumers and customers. ‘I’m okay’ is the kind of thing a customer says when they’re offered a free iced latte when they go past a Costa or something – it’s a consumer response.


CAPILDEO – It is, but it is also a kind of abused child response: ‘I’m okay, I’m only being beaten, I’m not being starved.’ Obviously they’re not okay, they’re being overcharged fees, fed franchised food which is unhealthy, made to pay rent for accommodation which is unaffordable, sent out with debt, taught by precarious over-stressed people who have not worked long enough to build up security in their expertise. I started asking questions like, ‘Do you know what your fees are paying for? Do you know how much your lecturers earn? Do you know how much how much your vice-chancellor earns?’ And when I asked these questions some just looked stricken and suddenly very young. The majority didn’t know what their fees paid for.


YAQOOB – There’s also a sense in which some of the bodies, in particular student unions, that were previously relied upon to push back against fees, to push back against consumerisation, are now becoming part of the managerial structure. So some of the conduits around which staff and student solidarity used to be built can no longer necessarily be relied upon. Actually the model that student unions are being pushed into in a lot of places is that of a sort of welfare provider. They’re there to pick up the pieces of the strain and the stress of being in debt-funded higher education knowing that you’re going into a terrible job market. So there are wider issues at play. Sorry to be bleak.


BEAUMONT – I don’t want to be Pollyannaish, but I was deeply gratified in my department by the levels of solidarity from students and by their willingness to understand. I think there was a certain amount of suspicion and scepticism and even ignorance regarding the issues that were being fought over, and on their the political implications and the ways in which they might interact and
intersect with their own interests. But that was until we held a meeting for everyone in the department who wanted to attend. All those proposing to take strike action explained themselves, and tried to make themselves accountable to the students. And a real dialogue began, which continued throughout the duration of the strike. Ultimately, I found the students’ appetite for connecting up their disappointments and disillusionments with ours was impressive and quite poignant.


CAPILDEO – I suppose that if the students had been hurt by the continuation of the strike into an exam period then that would have been correct, because strike action is a very particular type of action and this strike was dependent on the acceptance of the commercialisation of the relationship between academic and student, and the point of the strike is to hurt the consumer. Whereas if one were to analyse the university as treating the student as the product rather than as the consumer, then that would be different.






CAPILDEO – There’s an incoherence in wanting the students to be both consumer and product, to show solidarity with the strike and be hurt by the strike. It’s not really possible. So how appropriate is the traditional form of strike action? Oddly, I did appreciate something my teaching colleagues were not so happy about: the length of the strike. And the reason I was happy about it was that academics in disciplines more ‘real world’ than mine – economists, journalists, lawyers – were doing proper serious research into the strike. The longer the strike went on the more there were extraordinary discoveries and documentation being produced.


YAQOOB – I want to go back to the student thing, to what you were saying about industrial action. I don’t think you were being Pollyannaish. I speak today as some of our students have blockaded the finance office of the university on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. And throughout the strike for a large part the student body were at the leading edge, they were leading the debate about the future of the university and the academics, my colleagues, were catching up. They led an occupation with extraordinarily precise and clever and strategic demands and they got what they wanted from the university and that was extraordinary to see. So I just want to strike a note of hope. But on the industrial action, I do think the spectre of hitting exams put union organisers in a difficult place, because on the one hand you want students to go into exam term onside with the strike, supportive, making us feel good about picketing. On the other hand, we also want them to complain in a certain way, in a way that management doesn’t think is coordinated by us but is actually a sign of genuine anger. The possibility of refunds was in there as well. Of course in the context of a standard industrial dispute demands for large-scale refunds would be incredibly disruptive. And time and time again we were asked as a union branch whether we were comfortable with requests for refunds. I thought it wasn’t our place to tell students how to express their anger, but on the other hand there are some serious issues with acting as if you’re already a consumer.


CHARMAN – I teach for the postgraduate outreach programme, and over the seven years. I’ve been involved in access and outreach work I’ve noticed a definite change in the questions students ask me. At GCSE level or even younger, the questions now are all about whether they will get a job after university. What kind of job will they get if they do a humanities degree? And I never know what to say because I can’t lie. That’s not ethical. But I disagree completely with the idea that the purpose of university is to get a job, that knowledge should be instrumentalised. But they are in a double bind as students. They can’t not be under those pressures, they can’t not be worried about graduating with a huge amount of debt and then trying to find a job. So I worry about students when it comes to the issue of whether they are the consumer or the product. It’s very very hard for them whilst they are under that pressure to actually work out what it is they can be, let alone what they want to be.


CAPILDEO – Of course.


BEAUMONT – I agree: it’s very difficult to know what to say in response to that. The issue of debt has totally transformed higher education – at every level, I think. And the introduction of fees by Dearing in 1997, and their consolidation and extension by Brown in 2010, totally and almost instantaneously transformed the students’ relationship not only to the universities, and to us as university employees, but to their futures. In some ways, I now think that one of the primary functions of the university, for the ruling class, is precisely to train a generation in indebtedness, in a state of being in debt. Higher education has become a kind of training ground for what is a long-term, lifelong experience of debt, and of acting as, functioning as, consumers. I feel very gloomy about that indeed.


YAQOOB – It is remarkable how rapidly universities were transformed in a small period, almost as if they were a microcosm of wider developments in the political economy of the United Kingdom. Debt-funding financial managers have been shoved into places that previously weren’t managed on those terms. One of the struggles I think of which has been lost, or which was already lost, is the hope that seemingly fairly conservative universities and managers would resist marketisation and actually hold on to some sort of public good. Actually what we have seen from some vice-chancellors is that the upper-management cadres are now populated by people from finance. So there is not much chance of swinging the whole university sector around to oppose government policy. This is going to be like a civil war, for want of a better word.


BEAUMONT – Yeah, in the past it always seemed frankly precious or sententious to talk about the ‘proletarianisation’ of employees in higher education, and I can see that it risks still sounding like that to some people. But the younger generation of academics, people who are going into the profession now, are being proletarianised in some meaningful sense – they face more and more temporary contracts, less and less remunerative pay, inadequate pensions, and a foreclosing of their professional futures.


CAPILDEO – Of course it could be viewed as being feminised as well as proletarianised. Part-time or fixed-term ways of working are the non-choice choices into which women traditionally have been forced.


YAQOOB – And sectors that have a higher proportion of female participation tend to be regarded with less esteem and recognition. One of the things that was horrifying about teaching assessment exercises in the Teaching Excellence Framework was that it magnified some of the inequities in how people are recognised and understood as teachers and as providers of education. So in student assessments of teaching quality, women performed badly even when they were equal to men in all other forms of assessment. So what we’re seeing is lots of the most pernicious aspects of British social development over the last twenty years being funnelled into the university as an institution.




This is an excerpt from the full Roundtable, which is available in Issue No. 22 of The White Review.




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