For years, academics and other staff have been quietly resisting the marketisation of our universities. Now, a series of strikes has brought their objections in to the open—and there's no going backby James Williams / March 29, 2018 / Leave a comment
I was appointed to a permanent academic post in 2012, by which time it was already too late. Not for me, that is, although by then I was thirty-two and had lost a decade of pension contributions compared to a career started at twenty-one. One of the most important contexts for understanding the industrial action taken by UCU in defence of defined benefit pensions is the fact that, in academia, stable employment typically comes (if it comes) well into one’s thirties or even later, by which time a pile of debt needs paying off before luxuries like savings, mortgages and families can be imagined.
I mean it was too late for the university, at least as I had always understood the term. As Stefan Collini has observed, the idea has never been a stable one, and people tend “to think that universities must always have been pretty much what they half-remember them being in their day.” I started my undergraduate degree in 1998, when Thatcher’s university reforms had bedded down and tuition fees (then £1,000 p.a.) were being introduced. Nonetheless I inherited the values and aspirations of the public university that had served my parents’ generation: that higher education is a common good which should receive state funding, that the value of scholarship and intellectual enquiry cannot primarily be accounted for economically, that teaching is not honestly undertaken as a relationship of service provider to customer. These understandings may never have commanded universal assent, but they had long proved culturally difficult to dislodge.
Nor were they easy for me to discard. During the years of the noughties I was busy becoming an academic (completing a protracted PhD, grieving the death of my mother, living on hourly-paid teaching and short-term contracts in what is now known as the academic “precariat”) while, meanwhile, that profession was being restructured by both Labour and Conservative-led governments according to the principles of neoliberal economics. Aggressive fee hikes (2004, 2010), the Ipsos MORI National Student Survey (2005), the market agenda of the Browne Review (2010), and the refashioning of the RAE into the “impact”-driven REF (2014) were all completed or underway when I received a permanent lectureship at the University of York that seemed scarcely less than miraculous.
The coveted post I had won (over a pool of applicants which will have included many just as able) was not exactly what I thought I had applied for. My duties were to carry out original research, to teach, and to take my share of the day-to-day administration of the department; duties which my training and education had more than prepared me for. In fact, I found myself under pressure to account for my research activity in arbitrary and incoherent terms; to justify my presence by raising grant income; and to bring my teaching and assessment into line with the metrics of the NSS, measures not of educational progress but of consumer happiness, and so to boost rankings and attract as much income as possible from new student fees. In meetings, well-meaning colleagues would insist, in good faith, that criticism of the rationale underpinning this or that managerial directive was simply not a conversation “the university” (meaning our managers) was interested in having.
At the same time, it became clear that the university I “half-remembered” had not vanished so much as gone underground. In the THE in 2011, Thomas Docherty contrasted the “official” and “clandestine” universities. The former is in hock to a set of corporate metrics bearing little or no relation to what academics actually do. Like subject peoples burning their pinch of incense before the image of the Emperor, academics pay outward lip service in a language they neither acknowledge nor endorse, yet many continue privately to organize their scholarship and teaching along entirely different lines. To quote Docherty:
as academics, we do not ‘compete’ against colleagues elsewhere for research funding; rather, we just want to do the research, and we welcome good work wherever it is done …. When we enter the seminar room, we do not seek to confirm pre-set ‘aims, objectives and outcomes’ for the class: to do so, we would need to circumscribe the possibilities that the seminar offers for imaginative exploration of our topic, that is, for learning. But we cannot officially say this.
I have encountered this “clandestine university” in countless private conversations with colleagues, exchanged glances of frustration and bewilderment, and liberating conversations in the classroom.
2018 will be remembered as the year the “clandestine university” came out of the closet. As 2017 drew to a close it became clear that Universities UK (the organization representing British vice-chancellors) was pushing to restructure USS, the pension scheme for pre-1992 universities, imposing a loss for typical members estimated at around £10,000 a year in retirement. Against the general backdrop of marketisation, casualisation, and wage stagnation in the world of higher education the wave of anger this evoked should have surprised nobody, yet it caught everyone off guard. On the picket lines, I found myself surrounded by colleagues I had not thought of as politicised, or even especially political. This was about more than just pensions: the market agenda of the “official university” was being decisively rejected.
On Twitter and in other public fora, academics were educating one another brilliantly about the intricacies of pension regulation while sharing experiences of vulnerable employment, research funded out of individuals’ pockets, and work routinely done in excess of contracted hours. Working to contract revealed how little payment for teaching, especially early in a career, takes into account time spent preparing and planning, and how much research (which typically determines employment and promotion) is pushed into evenings, weekends, and annual leave.
Hours lost responding to administrative directives and answering e-mails were weighed alongside those spent on pastoral care and counselling for students, writing job references, offering advice. No academic that I know resents this commitment to welfare; on the contrary, it became clear how much their dedication to students was being exploited, at the expense of careers, private life, and mental health. Alongside these testimonies, many others in the USS scheme—librarians, support staff, and administrators—fought against the public image of the “lecturers’ strike” to have their voices and stories heard.
The “clandestine university” is no longer clandestine. For the last month it has been standing in the snow and the rain, terrible as an army with banners, shouting “We are the university.” It has been organising inspirational “Teach-Outs,” sharing knowledge outside the campus gates. It has been rediscovering a solidarity many thought was lost. But the history of revolutionary moments is one of utopias yielding to realities, in which disappointment is inevitable even when real ground has been won.
A new deal, currently under review by UCU members, proposes an independent review of the USS fund’s contested valuation: a major concession, although short of total victory. Whether or not this is accepted, the question for us is how to continue to resist visibly the institutional culture in which we find ourselves, while reasserting our real social and cultural value to the wider culture that sustains us. Coming out is one thing, living in the open something else. Going back into the closet, however, is unthinkable.
The author’s views do not represent those of his employer.