Our eight days of action are in response to a marketised sector that has prioritised profit over the welfare of staff and students.
Workers in higher education across the UK are on strike. One of the reasons we are striking is because of the poor conditions we face today – which were, in large part, decided by the 2010 election.
Nearly a decade ago, the Tory and Lib Dem coalition government conspired to transform higher education, unleashing the forces of marketisation. The physical and emotional landscape of the university has fundamentally changed in the intervening years. The devastation wrought cannot be overstated. Contrary to justifications for reform by Tories and Lib Dems, the contemporary university is not sustainable, and reforms have reduced standards and entrenched inequality.
In public discussion of the – shameful – tripling of student fees and mounting student debt, the changes to university funding that this brought about are often neglected. The 2010 coalition government replaced the old system of block grants with money paid per student per course, and lifted the cap on the number of student places available. Now, universities compete for funding by competing for students, with each other, and between their own departments.
Most remarkably, this was done in the name of improving standards. It has left its scars on the physical landscape of universities, no longer able to fit in the number of students they have enrolled, and the springing up of new buildings, luxury accommodation and gyms all designed to attract prospective students. If the modern university has a soundtrack, it would be constant drilling for the construction of new, shiny buildings, temples to “student satisfaction”.
Marketisation does not mean the immediate insertion of the profit motive into previously public goods. It means, at least in the first instance, making those public goods profitable. Students are in more and more debt, workers are paid less and less, while private companies and developers are given access to a potentially lucrative market.
What does this mean for workers in higher education? They face a proliferation of perverse incentives: instead of research and teaching, lecturers are expected to take part in a perpetual recruitment drive. Instead of supporting students emotionally and academically, staff in student services, often facing cuts and “restructures”, are expected to act as the vanguard of “employability”.
With more students, permanent staff are expected to take on more and more work. Temporary staff are expected to paper over structural gaps, providing a “flexible” workforce who are hired and fired in response to fluctuations in student numbers. Research shows that part-time staff and those on hourly rates are only paid for 55% of their work. Staff in general work, on average, the equivalent of two days unpaid per week. Given these low wages, many temporary staff are effectively paid less than the minimum wage.
The expectations placed on staff cannot be met. It is not possible to produce the kind of work expected in the amount of time we are paid to do it. New methods of evaluation and student metrics create even more work, and overlook the key fact that asking students if they enjoyed a course reveals very little about whether that course was well-taught. Student services are stretched to breaking point, and instead of releasing the tension by, for example, increasing funding, services are instead outsourced, with trained counsellors replaced by generic “advisers” and, even, apps.
When we say that the expectations on staff cannot be met, we mean that it is not possible to live under these conditions. There is nothing else left to squeeze. The doctrines of flexibility and precarity are in no way specific to higher education. They are paradigmatic of contemporary working practices. This means the struggle against precarity is not just a struggle for better conditions for academic workers – it is the insistence that a better life is possible for all of us. The disruption to teaching that comes from workers’ poor health, unnecessary pressure and precarity is much, much greater than the disruption caused by the cancellation of classes.
Despite the deprivations of the picket line – early mornings, hours standing in the cold, lost pay – I have rarely seen colleagues so happy. The lifting of the neoliberal impulse to be constantly working, every interaction a chance for self-development, every minute a chance to get something done, has profound effects. Reclawing time from management’s extractive demands gives us a glimpse of how the university could be.
The University and College Union dispute, which runs until next Wednesday, is about pay and pensions for some 43,000 members of the union, all working in academia. Even if we won on both counts, our futures, and the future of higher education, will not be secure without a fundamental rethink of the way in which universities are funded in the UK.
We cannot afford to merely attempt to reform a marketised sector, based around fees. Almost 10 years on from the seismic higher education reforms of 2010, we face another general election. The only party now offering a rethink of fees and funding, rather than the shuffling of proverbial deckchairs, is Labour.
We must not let students’ interests be pitted against workers. They are one and the same. So far during the strike, universities have bribed students to cross the picket line with gimmicks like free breakfast and free parking. They have attempted to ban solidarity action by students with a sustained campaign of misinformation, including the suggestion that joining picket lines is illegal and that students must cross them because they are members of NUS and not UCU. We are warned that students might feel anxious about the strike and that by picketing our workplaces we are letting them down.
In these moments, management attempts to call upon a sense of duty we might feel towards our students. But as workers in higher education, we should not be content to merely provide a better version of the kind of education-as-commodity that management insists on.
With our strike and the election, we have a chance to start fundamentally re-imagining the university. It’s the only thing that might save it.