Yesterday we finished the first day of a 14 day action, a financial sacrifice that will be compounded by a 20% pay cut for action short of a strike. This kept me up at night.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – “Other people’s tactics are not the problem’. So why then was it the support for the strike, rather than any opposition that kept me up at night?
A number of petitions to University management have been circulated by students seeking financial compensation for contact hours lost due to the strike.
I really don’t want to sound ungrateful, and I do not take student support for strike action for granted. So why do I find it so uncomfortable when students demonstrate their support for me through their individual consumer rights? Why doesn’t their consumer pressure for compensation for hours lost in the current strike in defence of our pensions make me feel defended?
Partly it doesn’t feel like solidarity because it feels like it is coming from the wrong direction. It may be sympathy but it is not solidarity. Defending our pensions from market forces by asserting consumer rights misses the point, for me. The point is to resist the marketization of universities. The point is to defend the right for collective trade union action. Since the Taff Vale Ruling of 1901, financial liability for contracts breached by trade union action has regularly been raised to strangle trade union action. The economic power of a strike is not to annoy a consumer. The political power of a strike is is not measured in the costs incurred; the power is in the withdrawal of our, the strikers’, labour.
Partly I am uncomfortable because this support is not what we asked for, and it rings too many bells. It reminds me of every time a student has told me they are paying for my time, inferring that I work to serve them, sometimes this is done without thought, sometimes this is repeated with menace. Every time I can feel a wedge between us and hear another nail driven in the coffin of the university imagined as a shared community. If students are the consumer, am I the commodity?
Students are not the consumers of my labour. In fact students are not consumers, they are the commodity, or at least they are the data markers of where the money goes.
What happens to a university when it is a consumer transaction? Universities are in a crisis of funding, but also of direction, and morale. Universities that are driven by profit and marketing, turn students into ‘units’, and academics into target chasers. The creative potential to be intellectual, to explore and challenge ways of thinking, and to imagine the world into a better place has been replaced, with a series of ‘frameworks’. Excellence has become a brand. Consumption has replaced intellectual production. Thinking, critical analysis, and contributing to the world around us, are valuable only when then can be measured in numerical and financial values. Last year’s Higher Education and Research Act opened us up to ‘multinational private investors’. The market was supposed to make us ‘flexible and efficient‘. It hasn’t. The market was supposed to open us up to everyone. It has failed. Numerous studies, such as those by Collini, Pickard, Olssen, Cleary ( all produced using their considerable academic skills), all argue that in fact standards are falling. In the meantime, we are getting really good at frameworks, units, outputs, and league tables that are published by The Guardian, The Complete University Guide and Times Higher. Thanks to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), we publish so that we can show we publish. Thanks to the National Student Survey (NSS) and Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), we teach well so that we can show we can teach well.
Contact between students and staff is measured not in influence or inspiration but in hours. These interactions have been costed: students ask ‘how much is this seminar costing me?’ In the process, the perversity of the market has undermined the value of the intellectual content of the degree. As Molesworth pointed out in 2011, students come to University already expecting to leave with exactly the degree that they came for. In effect, Molesworth argues, they feel that they have already ‘earned’ their degree. There is little space for risk, or challenge, in a degree of pre-set expectations. In fact we can’t even agree what it is that students are meant to be consuming; training, critical analysis, transferable skills or a qualification.
As Teresa Cleary explained in her recent article on the marketisation of UK Universities, ‘universities are incrementally transformed into self-contained bureaucracies based on market principles’. Universities are valued for their investment potential—in terms of privately funded accommodation development or teaching provision. A university education is therefore a personal ‘investment’ in one’s future, rather than an end in itself.
As Joanna Williams has demonstrated, there is no public good, just a set of measurable outcomes. We have gone beyond training students to compete in the competitive world of work; we have turned them into the business itself.
Early career academics, doctoral students, hourly paid tutors have all been raising awareness of the price that they are paying in terms of their mental health. Pressure to finish doctoral studies more quickly, precarious working contracts and toxic work environments have led to 40% of people on non-permanent contracts experiences mental health problems. This is not just an issue of early career precarity: we are all squeezed between student expectations and management targets. About 37 per cent of all academics have mental health disorders. We have a lower level of ‘wellbeing’ than staff in other types of ‘comparable employment’ (including education, and health and social work). The atmosphere of never-ending targets and pressure is compounded by increased levels of workplace bullying—where humiliation is employed a disciplinary measure. Sexual harassment at academic conferences has, until recently, been an unspoken gauntlet faced by women academics.
The National Student Survey (NSS) and TEF will be used to discipline us. League tables build on the survey taken in the Spring terms of the final year of a degree. Universities and departments are pressurised to push up response figures. Students feel ‘nagged’ into completing surveys. Both the Student Union and UCU recognise that the survey will be used to push up fees at the more universities that are most successful in NSS terms. The survey asks students about their overall experience of their time at university. The results are used in ways that the data was never designed for, and extrapolated from in ways that we would not accept in an undergraduate essay.
And then after all that, they came for our pensions. The employers want to end guaranteed pension benefits. We are just part of the business after all. Our final pension should depend on how our ‘investments’ perform and not on our contributions. Being measured has changed what we do. We are all just data now. How do consumer rights help us in this battle? I might be wrong, but it doesn’t feel like the right kind of solidarity.
Lucy Robinson is Professor in Collaborative History at the University of Sussex. To mark ongoing industrial action by the Universities and College Union (UCU), this blog is reposted with permission from her personal site, ‘Now That’s What I Call History’.