Demands Against the Long Crisis of the University

Wang Qingsong: “Follow Him” (2010)

Next week the UCU (University and Colleges Union), which represents most people working as lecturers and researchers in universities, is beginning a wave of strikes. The strike is about cuts to pensions. Since there is a large financial hole in the main pension fund, the bodies that administrate that fund are hoping to lessen it by reducing pay outs in retirement. If this happens lecturers could lose up to £200,000 (or £10,000 per year over 20 years).

This is certainly a bad state of affairs, and one worth striking about, but it barely reflects any of the problems for workers in a sector that has now been in a permanent state of crisis for decades. In fact a large proportion of the workforce are not enrolled on pension schemes. Over half of those working in the sector are on precarious contracts, in many case hourly paid, zero hour contracts, or short-term contracts, often with little security or benefits. Often they are research students who, knowing they need teaching experience if they want to progress to the relative security of a permanent post, accept super-exploitative wages and conditions. Often they are workers who, having attained a doctorate, are expected within the sector to work many precarious, poorly paid positions (while they fund their own research out of, erm, magically being rich) to “earn the right” to be offered a full time permanent position, for which there is now enormous competition.

The state has found those with full-time permanent academic positions to be extremely compliant. Faced with ever-worsening conditions in the sector as a whole, those with professional salaries have been paid just enough to look the other way. They have been paid just enough to accept ever greater class sizes; just enough to accept utterly meaningless “excellence frameworks” in teaching and research that pit colleagues against each other in competition while providing zero evidence of improved teaching or research; just enough to not mind teaching assistants working on their courses below the minimum wage; just enough not to complain when students are impoverished and university education is made more exclusive by exponentially increasing tuition fees; just enough to ignore enormous cuts to grants for postgraduate and research students; just enough to accept the outsourcing of service staff such as cleaners and security staff in the university, who then face bullying, abuse, loss of pensions, zero hour contracts, and bad working conditions; just enough to submit to helping the home office threaten students with deportation and to comply with racist “prevent” policies; just enough to accept increases in teaching-only positions with no pay for research; just enough to accept the decimation of paid research time across the sector; just enough to repeat in fear the mantra “publish or perish”; just enough to ignore the monopolisation of academic outputs, and the hiding of publicly funded research behind paywalls; just enough to accept the worsening quality of education and research.

To the glee of government after government that “just enough” has not been very much at all. Professional pay for academics has declined not just relatively but absolutely during a half a century boom in the industry. Despite the massification of education, those with permanent positions have preferred to be paid off in order to pretend that the university is still a cottage industry. Many don’t complain because they consider themselves “lucky” to have their jobs, and wouldn’t want to tempt fate. The consequence is a mass industry in which most workers have little security and low wages, which they accept with the promise that if they slave away hard enough they might finally be rewarded with precisely that security that is now being eroded as pensions are cut (while wages have been cut for years, and many departments have faced closure). Most of the poorest, most who are from BME backgrounds, most who are disabled or who have caring responsibilities simply can’t take this, and drop out of the race.

The fact that staff have rolled over again and again for decades, that they have been bought off and shown so little solidarity has allowed an enormous transformation of Higher Education. By now most people who work in the university understand the situation: not only is teaching and research poor to the point of dereliction, but even those who are in the most secure positions are constantly worried about their jobs, about having to re-enter a jobs market in which the number of decently paid positions is constantly being squeezed. Everywhere there is just competition. But the pervasive ideology that competition breeds success has proved hollow: now the competition is between departments to provide an “education” economically, to make sure you don’t lose your job, to show you are worthy of some tiny pot of funding that is required to get your job done. Finally it is revealed (as though it wasn’t obvious) that there never really was a competition provide high quality teaching or research. So real is this fear and the spirit of competition – between academics, between departments, between institutions – the endless race to the bottom and the attitude of box-ticking has almost entirely eclipsed any learning (not to mention wisdom) in the academy.

There are a number of very straightforward demands that can and ought to be made across the sector to either solve the crisis or to bring it to a head. But they require some bravery and solidarity, rather than the cowardice and competition that we have seen for decades. And the people who are in the best position to show bravery, who could really lead this fight, are those with full-time permanent positions. They should know too that if their jobs are threatened for leading the fight, everyone will have their backs.

Below are a series of demands that could easily be adopted, and should be widely supported:

  • • No to the proposed cuts to pensions
  • • An end to below-inflation annual pay rises
  • • Refuse to take part in REF and TEF, which show no evidence of improving teaching or research
  • • Refuse to teach on any courses that do not offer all teaching staff proper contracts (fractional or otherwise), with adequate pay for prep and marking. End zero hours contracts in the sector, and pay people for the time they work.
  • • Refuse to publish anything held behind paywalls (the knowledge monopolies of Elsevier, Springer, and Co. must be ended!)
  • • Refuse to publish books with academic presses where books are so expensive only institutions can purchase them
  • • Support for the immediate abolition of tuition fees
  • • Support for all postgraduate loans to be replaced with grants
  • • Support for increased numbers of grants for doctoral students
  • • Fixed quotas of students per faculty member (so that increases in student numbers are matched by increases in numbers of academic staff)
  • • Immediate abolition of the position of “vice-chancellor” in all universities (once universities stop seeing themselves as in competition, there will be no need for these people in any case)
  • • Refusal to take part in league-tables, which undermine workers in the worst funded parts of the sector
  • • Refuse to take on management positions
  • • When involved in hiring, to do this on the basis of which candidate will provide the best education to students and will do the most interesting research, not on the basis of who will professionalise most adequately
  • • Refuse to help in “teacher training” for research students in which those research students are not remunerated for attending training courses.
  • • Support bringing in-house all staff who work in the university, regardless of their jobs (service staff too!), and giving them equal pensions, holiday pay, sick pay, and job security.
  • • Demand service staff within the university, including those on the lowest pay such as cleaners, are included on university management committees all the way to the very top.

Let’s hope the strike over pensions is just the beginning of a battle to save the sector, to improve education and research, and to end the poverty, competition, and fear that has come to characterise working in higher education. None of this is really revolutionary stuff – it’s just about protecting the conditions of workers. It shouldn’t be hard to support. To all those people with full time permanent contracts who are striking, a great many people who are working with worse conditions – indeed without pensions – will be supporting you unconditionally in a spirit of solidarity.

In the mean time, I threw this together on my own in an hour. I’m sure lots of people can do a better job of making these arguments than me, so do that. And if you don’t have time, do share this, and get those conversations happening in your departments.

Reposted from Prolapsarian

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  3 comments for “Demands Against the Long Crisis of the University

  1. Shackec
    14 February 2018 at 10:55 am

    The writer of this article displays all the self serving, self interested rhetoric of union leaders of all time.
    The total annual expenditure of UK universities is, I believe , in excess of £25 billions.Nearly all of this comes from the government. I count the contribution of student loans as government spending as most of this will never be repaid. There are roughly 2 millions of full time equivalent students. Only the top 10% are being educated to the equivalent standard of 40 years ago. The balance is the result of a self indulgent pampering of the middle and lower middle classes which is resulting in a massive waste of government spending.
    The government, quite wrongly in my opinion, believes that we need a vast volume of poorly educated graduates to run a “knowledge economy”. Rubbish! Most people receive the skills and knowledge they need to be useful to their employing institutions from in-house experience and training. The universities have supported the government in this nonsense and are now reaping the rewards. When universities return to their proper historical role they will then earn what they deserve.

    • Vladimir
      22 February 2018 at 2:03 pm


  2. Lloyd Myatt
    20 February 2018 at 1:52 pm

    A brilliant article. I actually considered writing something similar to be honest. I will be affected by the strikes and completely agree with the arguments made, especially towards the TEF and REF. Increased state interference is not a good thing.

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