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…