Embracing the Dinosaur of Solidarity

One of the revelations for USS pension strikers has been a rekindling of the spirit of the collective out on the picket lines. For many older members of UCU, who have stood on rather porous picket lines during past pay disputes, this is their first experience of really exhilarating solidarity. This makes the appearance of the Dinosaur of Solidarity rather paradoxical, since it is the older workers who are most likely to find it a novelty. Nevertheless, you can imagine this scornful coinage being formed on the lips of an HR manager somewhere among the 65 striking universities. But as I was reminded on Twitter recently, younger strikers would have moulded a collective consciousness during the 2010 protests over the tripling of university tuition fees. They are now deploying the organisational skills gained in their early political education. We can also see something similar taking shape right now in the US, so let me throw in the best tweet of the las few days which comes from the US school protests:

Feral Progressive

Both younger and older USS scheme members have been invigorated by the solidarity found within the union, UCU. When the UCU/ UUK ‘agreement’  was released late on Monday night (12/03/2018) it seemed rather like one of those political advertisements targeted at a Facebook profile. The Collective Defined Contribution is a new pension scheme which seemed designed to appeal to that collective spirit. But the collective were not happy to relinquish their defined benefits, and so it was ‘reject and resubmit’, as the placards said.

Management, meanwhile, were making attempts to break the collective strike action. One of the most disappointing, yet predictable, betrayals has been the appropriation of old ‘lecture capture’ videos which have been offered to students as a replacement for lost lectures. The introduction of lecture capture was resisted by many in UCU, but driven through in the interests of access for disabled students. That resistance was rooted in suspicion that the welcoming of some innovations in ed-tech is motivated by the impulse towards surveillance and monitoring, not the educational support and development of the learner. That suspicion has been confirmed.

Additionally, there is uneasiness that ‘personalised learning’, the constant companion of ed-tech, allows cash-strapped universities to secretly harvest data from commercial dashboard platforms which has been shared in good faith by students. This can then be analysed to determine which graduates to approach for donations, and for which causes. Thus, learning can be opened up to capital exploitation in two ways. Firstly, the sale of learning platforms, and subsequently the capture of student data which can then be made available in other market domains. For example, the alumna who participated in a sports team (dashboard record – extracurricular activities) may be persuaded to fund the new swimming pool, while the student primary school classroom volunteer may wish to fund mentoring or outreach activities.

Personalisation is what is left when we design the collective out of university learning. When did we decide that to ‘disrupt’ was always a better solution than to facilitate? Probably when we sucked down enough of the neoliberal Kool Aid to stop questioning the pervasive reach of competition and markets. In the last 30 years, neoliberalism has constrained the very questions we are permitted to ask about education. Its effectiveness is now judged entirely by imposter metrics of value for money, satisfaction, graduate salaries and ‘learning gain’. These benefits are all framed from the perspective of private gains; they are not positioned as pertaining to the public good.

Fickle Tickell

The USS strikes of 2018 may have caused the cancellation of classes and suspension of the ratified curriculum, but there have been teach-outs, rallies and even ‘teachable moment’ conversations taking place on the picket lines. Some in the media have sneered at off-campus seminars on “How I learnt to love neoliberalism and globalisation and hate myself”. Far from being obscure theorising, this input has allowed students and staff to make sense of their own lived experience in UK HE in 2018.

In large numbers, students have rejected the university of student-as-consumer and crass satisfaction surveys which disguise growing SSRs and an increasing proportion of classes taught by contingent, insecure lecturers. At 22 universities, students have occupied management offices and university buildings in support of their lecturers, but also in protest at fees and excessive marketization. Students who were assured in 2011 that they would be at ‘the heart of the system’  are demanding a very different experience from that envisaged by the government and Universities UK. Students now know there are alternatives. This image is used with the kind permission of University of Nottingham UCU and is the result of a teach-out discussion designed to imagine the university of the future.

A wake-up call

And on Friday 16th March, even Stephen Toope, the VC of the University of Cambridge, has added his voice to the growing disenchantment with market reforms:

“For too long the damaging idea that students are “consumers” has been only weakly resisted. Being a “consumer” implies that students are nothing more than passive recipients of ideas delivered by lecturers. Yet, at its core, education is about active engagement of students with inherited knowledge, with new research, with other students, and with more senior academic guides and mentors. Of course, education is also about preparing students for life in the wider world, for careers, and for making a contribution to the community. Reducing students to mere consumers only makes sense if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. For centuries, universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breath-taking discovery and disruptive insight”.

Twitter posts have confirmed that an intoxicating possibility of change has not been confined to just one or two radical institutions. It has been universal, as has been the critique of the stress-inducing culture of overwork and hyper-scrutiny. Two professors from the University of Bristol shared their letters to the Vice Chancellor on Twitter:

Professor John Foot writes:

“It has been on the picket lines and in meetings and in teach-outs that I have (re) discovered the ‘community’ and ‘collegiality’ of which you so often speak. I have chatted to colleagues for the first time in years, met colleagues who I had only seen on email, laughed and joked and sang songs with them, marched with them down to college green”.

Professor Timothy Edmunds writes:

“However, this strike period has also been strangely liberating. The friendship and collegiality I have felt from colleagues across the university and sector, and the sense that these are shared challenges we all face, has been a massively positive experience. As has, frankly, the lifting of so many of the day to day pressures and anxieties that for me had become so routine I’d almost forgotten they were there”.

Professor Edmunds, then narrates how his mood improved so rapidly he no longer felt the need for anti-depressants during the strike. While nobody should need to be medicated just to do a job, Edmunds found he had entirely normalised this situation, commenting that his was not an unusual case.

Meanwhile, Gemma (no surname given) wrote of her despondency at receiving this comment from an internal reviewer on her research track record to this point: “very good, not excellent”, but that’s not a problem at this stage”. Wondering what more could be expected at age 33 when,

“You put everything you have into a job. Everything. So that sometimes you don’t sleep properly for months, because if you wake up in the middle of the night, you spend the rest of the night thinking about work. When you look forward to weekends when you have nothing planned, because that means you can get more work done. When you leave work at 10 or 11pm, because you were genuinely too “in to it” to leave earlier. Then you get home and work some more. To be told that all those sacrifices and all your hard work, enthusiasm and passion have left you with a track record that is “not excellent” is… deflating.”

These daily insults. The compulsory overwork which is taken for granted. The rent-seeking priorities of universities which seem to outweigh staff claims for decent pensions. The distortion of metrics, audits and league tables, the depletion of autonomy. And then the findings that the USS scheme valuations had not been carried out transparently, and the suspicion that de-risking had more to do with universities’ desire for more credit to fund buildings than it had to do with any deficit in the pension fund. No wonder then, that this crowdfunder initiative met its first £30,000 target in just 7 hours. Its purpose is to hire a QC “to obtain a legal opinion from a leading barrister on whether the conduct of the USS Trustees complies with the legal duties they owe to the pension fund beneficiaries” and to ascertain whether the trustees have acted in accordance with their legal obligations to act in the interests of the beneficiaries of the pension fund.

There is a new spirit about to transform relationships in UK universities, and a boldness and fearlessness among the staff. The Dinosaur of Solidarity has been more than a metaphor. She/ he has been an important inspiration on the picket lines and on Twitter. We are not about to see her/him extinguished by a managerial meteor just yet.


Leeds UCU #USSStrikes Rally, Wednesday 14th March 2018


Yesterday I was invited to address the strike rally organised by UCU branch of the University of Leeds. It was a hugely well-attended event, and was a tribute to branch President, Vicky Blake and all the other officials who have worked so hard to build momentum and morale all the way through this gruelling strike.

News on Monday 12th March made it clear that the strike was not over. There was an ‘agreement’ reached at the ACAS talks, but not one which UCU members could accept. This meant a major re-write for me, as the whole mood seemed to change. It seemed even more necessary to try and remind people why they needed to continue to fight for their USS pensions.

As the speeches started, the microphone failed. This meant that my words had to be chanted by those at the front, so that the wider audience at the back could hear. It was surreal to be accompanied by my very own Greek chorus, but  perhaps appropriate given that it was taking place on the steps of the Henry Moore Institute.

Text of the speech below.

Thank you for inviting me to speak. Leeds pickets are amazing!! You have come up with the best placards, hashtags, banners, songs, poems, playlists, teach-outs. And you have wonderful, supportive students whose silent protest was a moving and effective reproach to the Vice Chancellor.

And alumni !! And External Examiners !! The campaign to suspend donations and resign as Externals has really taken off.

But it’s clear, there is more to do. And what happens now determines what happens for a generation.

Make no mistake, this is a pivotal moment in universities. It is higher education’s PATCO moment. If you’re under 50 and not a historian of labour relations, you might not know what I’m talking about. PATCO – Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation, 1981, was when President Reagan decided to break their strike by replacing all of them with military personnel. This inspired Margaret Thatcher to go ahead with plans to break the Miner’s Union in 1984.

So let’s take stock of where we are now and where we need to go.

We’re at the point where Universities UK are willing to sell out your entitlement to a decent pension. Because they see you as liabilities, not assets.

And we’re at the point where UCU are proposing an agreement which does not meet the needs and aspirations of the membership. And which appears to accept an artificial deficit.

You have stood in snow and freezing cold for this:

  • A defined benefit element guaranteed for the next 3 years only.
  • Defined benefits capped at a salary of £42, 000.
  • A lower rate of accrual, so you will retire later.
  • An increased contribution from employees.

And the proposal for a new scheme to be investigated – Collective Defined Contribution. This is a new hot item. Wonderful, apparently, in the Netherlands. But not yet legal here, and utterly untried and untested.

Are you willing for your life savings to rise and fall with the stock market – however collectively the risk is borne?

And it is back to the table again in 3 years when the fight needs to be won NOW. In 3 years, if the union doesn’t stay solid, employers can just keep chipping away. Every 3 years, another dodgy valuation which we don’t accept. This is not defined benefits, it is defined attrition.

And all to address a deficit which we do not accept in the first place.

But if this deal is accepted, we implicitly accept the legitimacy of that deficit.


If this deal is accepted you get inferior, uncertain pensions. Let me tell you about Defined Contribution pensions, because that’s what our colleagues in the US have. It isn’t a pension as we know it. It is a financial product which fluctuates with the stock market. They try to tell you they are giving you choice in managing your money, but when management use terms like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ you need to set off the fire alarms. You want a guaranteed income and you’re not being offered it. My friends in the US are all terrified the money will run out before they die. And so they delay retirement until age 70 or even 75. Which of you still wants to be meeting REF targets or drawing up an NSS improvement plan for the rest of your life?

We are seeing strike breaking tactics including using lecture capture software to run last year’s lectures.

Leeds has distinguished itself by being utterly inflexible in its attitude to staff and in its continuing support for the UUK position with regard to the USS pension valuation. Tactics of intimidation – deducting 100% of pay until you fulfil a ‘reasonable’ management instruction to prioritise the replacement of lost teaching. And now they can face you down and say ‘the union has agreed this’. And at Leeds, as we know, they are trying to implement a statute whereby you can be dismissed for Some Other Substantial Reason. If you miss any one of those ‘reasonable’ priorities, you may be vulnerable.

There has been a colossal failure of leadership in British universities. Vice Chancellors have cravenly gone along with the marketization and commodification of higher education so that we find ourselves now responsible for our students’ future earnings. They have distanced themselves from the academic values which brought us into the university, and have refused to defend free, public higher education.

We see epidemic levels of stress in universities. And then there’s the bullying. The ridiculous demands of performance management. Management by metrics. Journal impact factors, H-indices. The notion that if you build anxiety into the business model of universities, then teaching and research will improve, grants will be captured and students will be satisfied.

You have workload models which are delusional. Spreadsheets which render invisible the £3.2 BILLION pounds of Pro Bono work you do. And that’s just the stuff that’s measurable. Because if it doesn’t fit the HR spreadsheet – well, to parody the OJ Simpson trial – if it doesn’t fit you must omit.

Look around you at the solidarity. Professional staff, students, zero hours colleagues, postgraduates, administrators, lecturers, researchers – all standing together. We are united and UUK are divided ! UUK cannot pretend to be ‘the definitive voice of UK universities’ anymore. There isn’t just a bit of slippage in their message – it’s a full scale wardrobe malfunction !

This fight for fair pensions will be won. They will not use this strike as a chance to break our union ! And we will win back democracy and decency in British universities.

There have been so many gains:

Solidarity and strength in the union.

Financial awareness.

Becoming critically aware of the power and ideological structures within which we work.


No to bullying and authoritarian management.

No to smoke and mirrors accounting.

Yes to sustainable careers.

Yes to transparency and democracy in our universities.

Yes to decent pensions.

No capitulation !


A Few Things Vice Chancellors Might Learn from the USS Strikes

It is now the third week of strikes to protect USS pensions in pre-1992 universities. I have been following developments on Twitter, and I have also been able to join colleagues in Exeter and Nottingham at a teach-out and a rally, respectively. Once again, I apologise if I am unable to correctly attribute some of the insights below; the hashtag #USSstrikes on Twitter is too fast moving and not always searchable. Nevertheless, let me acknowledge that most of these remarks have been inspired by the observations of others. In my last post, I reflected on what I had learned from the USS strikes. It seemed to find an audience with many who were taking industrial action, so I thought I would distil some ‘take away’ points for vice chancellors who, I know, will be anxiously searching for ‘lessons learned’. I have a suspicion that just a handful of senior university managers – I think the collective noun for them is a ‘wedge’ – might furtively scan these pages. So hello Paul, Alistair, Patrick, Mike, Joanne, John, Andrew, Cara, Trevor and perhaps Shearer.

VC 2

The response to having their pensions downgraded and devalued has shown that USS members are just as risk averse as their leadership teams are. VCs and finance directors who felt they did not want to accept the level of risk presented to them by the UUK valuation of the pension scheme, find themselves crossing picket lines staffed by angry lecturers, professional staff and administrators who are understandably wedded to the prospect of a secure retirement. Despite the actuarial advisors AON Hewitt’s suggestion that “there is a growing body of evidence that younger employees are choosing different working  patterns and practices to their older colleagues” – the strength and composition of the picket lines has affirmed that actually, younger employees, too, would like a level of security and a rewarding career structure. This strike is not just about pensions and nobody chooses insecurity. The campaign for sustainable careers will continue and will be led by a newly energised and mobilised group of young people. Empowered, as managers would say.

USS Callard Aon snip

UUK were unwise to think they could mislead a body of university employees that includes forensic accountants, information and IT specialists, statisticians and economists. The work of philosopher Mike Otsuka comes in for a huge commendation as he was the person who first exposed the fact that Oxford and Cambridge had been allowed to exercise a disproportionate level of influence in the de-risking vote carried out by UUK. Our gratitude goes to social scientist Felicity Callard for her sterling work on the uncovering of the documents from the Employers Pensions Forum which formed the brief for the 2016 USS valuation.  This from Jan Machielsen, a historian, is just superb, on reasoning, ‘facts’ and passive-aggressive intransigence. It should now be obvious that nobody has been fooled by repeated claims that decent pensions are suddenly, after decades, ‘unaffordable’. And anyway, if this is what it costs to employ highly qualified experts and professional staff, then that is what universities have to prioritise in their budgets. It is offensive when VCs try and intimidate staff with that duplicitous allusion to “difficult choices’, and even in one case, of asking them to choose between gender equity accommodations and a stable pension. It is ludicrous when they choose to value the pension using a scenario which models all universities going bust at the same time. As one person wrote, it appears managers have even less faith in their own abilities than we have.

Academics have seemed remarkably, creatively self-managing in the past three weeks. They have organised rallies, teach-outs, compiled motivational playlists, drawn wonderful placards and even designed a knitting pattern for a USS strike woolly hat. Mine’s a size Small, please. All of this was achieved without a committee scrutinizing learning outcomes or a line manager conducting an appraisal. And some students were commenting that they had learned more in the teach-outs than they had in the previous semester’s regular classes. As one participant in a teach-out in Exeter asked, do we even need managers? The strikers are as angry and irked by the impediments to their daily working lives as they are appalled at the prospect of an impoverished old age. I think some slackening of the reins of audit might be necessary as vice chancellors decide to address the resentment some of their HR policies have generated.

For example, VCs might reconsider some of the structures of audit so that they don’t assume the appearance of control and surveillance. Out on the picket lines, Foucault scholars have introduced colleagues to the notion of the Panopticon. It’s with a sense of sardonic incredulity that we find it has lent its name to the lecture capture software, Panopto. It has not been easy for management to persuade lecturers of its benign purposes; even less so now that it has been recruited as a tool of strike-breaking. Foucault can be a difficult read, but easy to comprehend when you are living his nightmare.

Enough of nightmares, here are some gains. The workforce has become more united. Was it Clark Kerr who said a university is a series of fiefdoms united by a common heating system? It probably was; he had all the best lines. But now membership in the USS pension scheme has provided another occasion for bonding. Librarians, IT specialists, administrators, academics and lab technicians have all found common cause and solidarity. It might be that, as many have pointed out, the one expression of the collective still alive in universities is the pension scheme. It would be cheering to think that unity can be maintained and channelled to everyone’s advantage. My fond colleague @PlashingVole has remarked on a newly-discovered sense of utopia spreading through the assembled masses at teach-outs and rallies. There is hope and expectation that we will do things differently once the strike is won.

However, we can foresee management’s reluctance to embrace the changes which are being proposed by the rank-and-file staff of universities. One joker quipped that vice chancellors, for all their talk of agility and fleetness of foot, are not quite as responsive to change when it comes from below. So help them out, strikers, and, as a gesture of reconciliation, offer to organise a staff development teach-out on ‘changing together’.

My fears are somewhat more dystopic than utopic. I am anxious that some of the more uncompromising VCs of the non-striking pre-1992 universities might now seek to exert even greater control over staff and extinguish their aspirations towards greater democracy in governance. Thus we might envisage a new divide in UK universities between the bullying-intensive universities versus the merely bullying active. Here I am caricaturing a suggestion from Professor Edward Peck, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University – his recent proposal for another new and unwelcome binary of teaching-intensive versus teaching-active universities, just to clarify.

As soon as the strike is over, real leadership, as opposed to management, will need to be exercised in rebuilding goodwill. Right now it is zero. This is critical because universities, and it appears, the economy, run on donations of labour and pro bono work. Here is a snapshot of a study released today.

Pro bono work

The wise VC will be absorbing a message of unity, creativity, a huge desire for active autonomy, cooperativeness and alternative ways of teaching and relating to each other. They will see that collegial bonding can be re-focussed towards a new unity of purpose. They will accept that academic work extends beyond the columns of a spreadsheet, and that to audit it, is like trying to apprehend a mirage. It will take courage to do things differently and be open to genuine consultation but it would be easier to resume the impulses to control because, in the words of Clark Kerr again, “The status quo is the only solution that cannot be vetoed.”






Five things I learned from the USS strikes


This is turning out to be a hard, long strike but there are some important lessons emerging from picket lines, teach-outs and social media. Twitter has been invaluable for me as all of us learn from each other, one tweet at a time. So, thank you Twitter colleagues, here are a few more things I have learned from you today:

1.Universities feel absolutely entitled to the free labour of academic staff. They make veiled threats about job security if you even have the temerity to defend your right to a weekend at home, and not donate your free time to student recruitment activities. There’s no credit in the favour bank though. Heavens no. Several universities (Leeds, Kent, Keele) are going much further than just withholding pay for days on strike, they are also telling staff they will withhold 100% of pay unless all classes cancelled due to strike action are rescheduled within 5 days. Effectively, this means strikers will be penalised financially twice. And if they comply with the demand, they will be working for free. Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), otherwise known as working to contract is also being heavily punished and treated just like full strike action at some universities. In other words your contract means nothing. In a world where any management demand is seen as ‘reasonable’, you can be asked to do double, triple, quadruple duty. Management have been trying to normalise that for years. They are now on the verge of having it codified as custom and practice.

2.Management’s discourse around pensions is carefully chosen to construct them as exorbitantly risky perks. The whole idea that they are unaffordable is a contradiction in terms if we recognise that pensions are deferred earnings invested collectively on our behalf. The notion of ‘risk’ is deliberately unattributed, because management have been coached to fear any financial risk that might attach to them, or the charge that they have mismanaged the fund.

3.There has been some very peculiar accounting going on in order to assess the value of the pension scheme. The 2017 valuation was apparently modelled on the scenario of all pre-1992 universities going bust at once. That made Oxford and Cambridge wary of being left holding the bag and they used their disproportionate vote to express their refusal of that risk. There were other discrepancies which you can read about here, but as Ben Anderson insightfully pointed out on Twitter, VCs have constructed a valuation method based on the most fanciful scenario possible. The fact that they have gone to such lengths to do so, reveals their contempt for their own staff. Their incompetence and neglect, compounded by a degree of duplicity and subterfuge has told strikers all they need to know. It really is an ‘us and them’ world in universities.

4.Ever wondered how superficial all those boasts are about commitment to being an equal opportunity employer? St Andrews stepped up for the big reveal last night when it emailed this:

St Andrews strike threat.jpg_large

No doubt the programs referred to by the vice chancellor have appeared in various strategy documents and will feature in their applications for badging and kitemarking for equal opportunities awards like Athena Swan. But all these are expendable when it comes to pressuring strikers and attempting to offload the responsibility onto them. Apparently you cannot have a fair workplace AND a pension. You need to choose, and St Andrews is bartering with your rights to equality of opportunity in its workplace. The announcement was met on Twitter with disgust from alumni, potential students and applicants for academic posts alike. I hope everybody learns from this.

5.I now know how pensions are…or should be…valued, though I don’t claim to understand all the details. I also know there are at least four different models of pension schemes, and some deliver better benefits than others. The scheme with the less favourable benefits is, of course, the one UUK is attempting to sell to USS members. George Osborne would like you to think this is about giving people ‘choice’ in how you use your money. When you hear managers use words like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ you need to set off the fire alarms. Be very wary because the USS proposals also involve the transfer of financial risk from the employer to the individual enrolled in the scheme. It is not a scheme in which money is collectively pooled and invested. It is just your pot, with your name on it, fluctuating up and down in line with the vicissitudes of the stock market. That’s not a choice I would be willing to make. More about why the investor class hates pensions was published in the New York Times 5th March 2018.

But as VCs are finding out, strikers and those who support them are still able to make choices that will have reputational and financial consequences for universities. The VCs who are so heavily in favour of academics having ‘choice’ in managing their USS pension money will find it rather inconvenient when that ‘choice’ is exercised in an external examining boycott, or a suspension of alumni donations.

Week three starts tomorrow, 5th March. Keep up the momentum everybody. UUK are so discredited even Lord Lucas, Conservative peer with an education brief, described UUK as “off their rocker”, and had this to say on Twitter on 3rd March:

“UUK, with all the intelligence at its command, ought to understand that pensions deficits are an imaginary product of quantitative easing and politicians who confuse safety and the stillness of death. They ought to be in the vanguard of reform”.

Given UUK’s general failure to defend public higher education , that hope may be misplaced. But as ACAS talks get underway, there is a real possibility their incompetence will be exposed.


Dear Vice Chancellor…..

To: Vice-Chancellor@leeds.ac.uk

2nd March 2018

Dear Vice Chancellor

You may have been alerted by the Alumni Office to a tweet I posted about 48 hours ago (@lizmorrish). In it I announced that I feel so strongly about management’s treatment of staff at Leeds that I will no longer be contributing to the alumni fund. To date, that tweet has reached 36,500 engagements and seems to have encouraged other donors to follow suit at Leeds, as well as at other universities.

The tweet was sent in response to a notification received by striking UCU members at the university informing them that they are likely to face a 25% pay deduction for continuing to take industrial action short of a strike, and in particular, if they fail to reschedule classes missed on strike days within an unreasonably short time. As the UCU letter details, this is effectively penalising strikers twice: once for the strike, and a second time for not doing the work you have not paid them for.

I consider this not just unfair, but bullying and abusive. It follows the serious breakdown in goodwill caused by the university management’s wish, in 2016/2017, to impose an update to Statute VII, adding a clause for dismissal of an employee ‘for some other substantial reason’.

The current strikes are taking place because academics are facing insecure, temporary contracts, potentially capricious reasons for dismissal, and now, the prospect of an insecure future in retirement. I understand, then, that many have reached the limits of their tolerance and have decided to withdraw their labour.

I am not in a position to withdraw labour, but I am in a position to withdraw my support for the alumni fund. It must be over a decade since a third year student called Charlotte phoned me in the evening from the alumni office. I was delighted to receive the call because I have always been grateful for the free education I received at Leeds all the way to PhD. In the era of tuition fees, I had begun to feel uncomfortable about the intergenerational inequity of imposing debt on young people just so they could access their right to education. I was teaching in another university and felt I could not face a classroom full of students without contributing something, somewhere to alleviate this unfairness. I take that obligation to contribute very seriously even to the point of having bequeathed my body to a local medical school after my death. I was a push-over, and Charlotte signed me up to a monthly donation and we moved on to talking about her dissertation. As we hung up from the conversation, Charlotte said she wished I was her seminar tutor. That made me feel very warm towards current students at Leeds.

Since leaving full time employment my gifts have become less regular, but I am still willing to donate, especially when I read articles in the alumni magazine such as the recent brilliant explanation of a new cancer treatment, or inspiring stories of students who have benefitted from scholarships.

Because I feel such a commitment to current students and research at Leeds, I have done my best to persuade other alumni to donate as well, with some success. However, I feel equally strongly about decent treatment for talented, highly qualified staff that does not deny them dignity or the salary and pension they have earned. I cannot in all conscience contribute to what will probably be another metric, another KPI that feeds into yet another league table. Please be assured that I am willing to use these arguments in conversations with other alumni donors. I will post this open letter to my blog and to Twitter, and I can only hope that reason, and whatever powers of persuasion I can bring, will result in you rescinding threats to penalize your staff in such a shameful way. Until that point, I’m afraid my philanthropic association with the university is suspended.

Yours Sincerely,


Liz Morrish

BA Linguistics and Phonetics, 1982

Ph.D. Phonetics 1985

Frozen, but Solid: #USSstrikes 2018

Thanks to someone on Twitter for supplying the title for this piece. Since the USS strikes began, I have been interested to see which of my Twitter follows has been tweeting strike-related material and which have ignored it. However, it occurred to me that I was yet to offer anything more than a few tweets myself. Some might say I have no ‘skin in the game’ because I am looking forward, in due course, to receiving a government-backed, defined-benefit TPS pension. Such critics are the sort of people who assume everybody else is as exclusively motivated by self-interest as they are. On the contrary, it has always been clear to me that this strike is pivotal; it is higher education’s PATCO moment in that, if the strikes fail to secure defined-benefit pensions for USS members, we may as well all forget holding on to many more of our rights as workers.

I won’t rehearse UCU’s position on the disputed valuation of the scheme. It is sufficient to say that all UCU members, younger and older, are now far more financially literate on pensions than they would otherwise have been. Additionally, we have all been educated that pensions are not ‘perks’ or ‘benefits’; they are deferred wages which should be responsibly stewarded until we claim them at retirement.

There are some other very positive things have come out of this strike, and more will follow. Perhaps the most conspicuous gain is that there has been a mass recognition of the value of solidarity, together with the sheer joy of strikers finding they do indeed belong to a community. As academics and professional staff have stood together in the appalling weather over the last few days, they have rediscovered the fun of academia. If imaginative, energetic, knowledgeable people are given the opportunity to chat to each other, mess around, dance and sing, who knows what brilliant ideas will emerge? Quite a few from the sound of it.

USS strikes Baty tweet

The irony is that so many have pointed out that in the course of a regular day’s work at a university, such productive and unplanned meetings would probably not occur. That alone should concern managers, but what else can they learn from this moment of industrial action?

Academics need the time, head space and physical space that afford optimum conditions for research and thinking to occur. The picket lines have allowed strikers to exchange experiences of university workplaces, and it is clear that one source of discontent is the removal of social spaces where random encounters can take place. In many cases, ‘space utilisation’ surveys have justified the re-appropriation of staff common rooms. Vast, empty atriums with foam sofas in primary colours are not conducive to community and collegiality. As one tweep wrote, without spaces to talk, we are atomized and alienated. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, and mentioned this particular meeting of minds at the University of Nottingham.

It is far less likely that there’s going to be a happy coincidence like the one that brought together an Anglo Saxon scholar and a microbiologist . The former knew of potions and remedies contained in the ancient Leechbook and she wondered whether they would work today as antibacterial agents. The latter decided to give it a go, and as a result, we have one new weapon against MRSA.

But space is not the only factor inhibiting the emergence of new collaborations. For fortuitous meetings to happen, and for imaginations to roam free, there must be spare time. This has become an unpopular idea with university managers who have embraced new workload models and staff dashboards to ensure that every lecturer and professor is fully scheduled up to their contractual maximum. I remember when I was a UCU official on the ‘information and consultation forum’ and this was first proposed at my former workplace. I was thanked, confidentially, by several heads of department, when I pointed out the inevitable consequences of ensuring that every academic was fully timetabled. Now that such practices are widespread, we can see that my fears have been realised. Take a look at this excellent piece of research. The author has made FOI requests on the numbers of staff referrals to occupational health and counselling services at each university. The rises have been dramatic over six years – 64% and 77% respectively, and these figures signify an appalling crisis of staff mental health.

Another issue mentioned by a striker is that actual hours worked increase year on year, while the hours credited to your workload remain the same or even decrease. How does this accounting trick happen? Workloads are divided into categories. It is hard to misrepresent actual class contact time, but you can pour more students into a class by raising the staff-student ratio, which in some university departments would disgrace a 1950s primary school. Then you can reduce the time for teaching-related activities, like tutoring, setting assessments and marking them – at the same time as demanding that formative as well as summative feedback is ‘delivered’ to students with lightning speed after submission. I won’t even start on time allocated for administrative tasks as the mere memory of it all give me vertigo.

And yes, these fictitious workloads have been conjured by the very people who have overseen the valuation of your pension scheme.

Another miscalculation by the employers has been the views of students. Lots of them have expressed fulsome support for their lecturers,  and I’m sure that has kept the strikers buoyant. The myth of the student as truculent and demanding customer has been thoroughly busted as students have joined the picket lines. The great success story has been the inspired provision of teach-outs which have covered everything from modernist poetry to pensions forecasting and risk assessment. They have been occasions for both staff and students to experience what it would be like to teach and learn beyond the shadow of learning outcomes, NSS, TEF, Evasys, Prevent, Panoptico lecture capture and without some clown from space utilisation barging in. Quite a few teach-outs broached the subject of the marketised, consumerised and finacialised academy that has seen vice chancellors abdicate academic leadership and the defence of public universities in favour of a new role in asset management. Students seem satisfied that they have learned something this week, and staff are all the more gratified because they have escaped the unbearable compulsion of audit.

bath teachout

These problems cannot be dismissed – trivialised – as one striking tweep wrote, as ‘failure to communicate’. This is the last refuge of the mediocre manager who thinks the response to every justifiable grievance is a louder megaphone and a larger stick. To the surprise of Universities UK and the vice chancellors who represent universities with USS members, the public seemed to sympathise with workers who were facing vastly reduced pension terms. Perhaps the ground had been softened by a sustained campaign of vilification against VCs by the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and the Observer. It was a good week for Channel 4 to run a Dispatches report on their high salaries and evidence of reckless spending on expenses. In any case, VCs were probably surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, and just as astonished to find they had lost control of the narrative that students were getting as well.

There is a new and jubilant tenor to the tweets and blogs I’m seeing. But as UUK and UCU enter talks again, UCU members are building momentum for the next wave of strikes. The delight in camaraderie seems to be outweighing fears of poverty, even for the casualized workers who are being penalized the most. If not exactly shedding their chains, I see workers emboldened to act against the injustice of what employers are proposing. I see workers who have just had enough. And acting in this defiant way is a new experience for a workforce bullied even now by threats of pay docking for working to the limits of their contractual obligations. Younger workers will be formed by this industrial action and they will be less susceptible to coercion in the future.

Many strikers wrote that they have been let down for decades by university leaders. ‘Sold out’ appears in several tweets. They feel vice chancellors have caved in too many times to government demands to the point where universities have conceded all meaningful autonomy. Adam Tickell came in for particular dishonourable mention with several economic geographers perusing the University of Sussex VC’s previous published writings where he wishes to ‘slay the neoliberal beast’ (1995) and praises the value of dependable pensions.

But there are also some commendations to award. At this point the membership of Universities UK is split. First out of the blocks was Stuart Croft of the University of Warwick, followed swiftly by Chris Day of Newcastle University saying he didn’t know “what else they could do to express their concerns about the current situation”. Then one by one some big hitters posted their support for more talks, and specifically support for a defined-benefits element to USS. Strikers were moved by the appearance on picket lines of Sir Anton Muscatelli of the University of Glasgow, Robert Allison of Loughborough University and there were even cups of tea sent round by Chris Day. This will be remembered when it is time to rebuild goodwill. And that is important for the future of universities because strikers are insistent and vociferous that pensions are just the starting point and there are many more grievances to be worked through on their return to work. The pension scheme needs to be on a solid footing and sustainable in the long term, but so do academic and professional careers.


In Development

Like a lot of other people, I watched Carrie Gracie give evidence to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on January 31st 2018. Gracie, as you may recall, resigned as the BBC’s China Editor in early January after finding she was paid 50% less than male counterparts.

A review conducted by auditors PwC and published on Tuesday concluded there was “no evidence of gender bias in pay decision-making” at the BBC. Bias in decision-making is not the same as bias exposed by outcomes, of course. Nice side-step. Nice obfuscation. Nevertheless, a group known as BBC Women countered with reports of ‘veiled threats’ if they petitioned for equal pay and “a wider culture of gender discrimination, which can be seen in patterns of promotion, especially after women take maternity leave.”

Carrie Gracie’s evidence was electric. She was passionate, committed and above all outraged. She kept her emotions in check but the hurt of that burning insult was palpable. Gracie had just been informed of the outcome of her grievance with the corporation in which she claimed the reason given for paying her less than her counterparts was that she was ‘in development’. At age 55. After 30 years. And when she was in post as an international editor.

I watched this and wept as my own memories of witnessing similar degradations in academia resurfaced. I recognised the mythologies of HR-bots, of continuous development and improvement. After all, nobody must be granted the conceit of expertise and value, or the sense of having ‘arrived’. That might render them less easy to control.

Gracie spoke about the “strain of being in conflict” and that, in the process, managers had attempted to “to crush your self-esteem about your work”. Other women employed by the BBC confirmed this. Samira Ahmed, quoted in the New York Times had this to say:

“I can only describe the feeling of being kept on much lower pay than male colleagues doing the same jobs for years as feeling as though bosses had naked pictures of you in their office and laughed every time they saw you,” Ms. Ahmed wrote. “It is the humiliation and shame of feeling that they regarded you as second class, because that is what the pay gap means.”

When you have seen managers unite into an impregnable cult, you recognise the manoeuvres. As well as denial of expertise, we see lies, obfuscations, post-hoc justifications, moving of goal posts, minimisation of role, diminishment of contribution and equivocation of responsibility. Here are those instances faced by Gracie and others in BBC Women, together with their academic equivalents.

Just in case the ‘in development’ line failed to get over the credibility hurdle, the Director General, Lord Tony Hall, and the Head of BBC News, Fran Unsworth, devised a post-hoc justification to present the two jobs – North America Editor and China Editor – as not at all equivalent. Lord Hall said: “We will not discriminate on gender between anybody but there are differences in the work, the nature of the work and the amount of work between say North America and China. Fran Unsworth explained that determination of value was nothing to do with geography, or the fact that Gracie had to be fluent in another language, or deal with relentless and intimidatory efforts at censorship. “It’s a different job, the China job. It’s a more features-based agenda, it’s not on the relentless treadmill that something like the North America editor’s job is.” The North America editor was on air “twice as much in peak time – and that is at a busy time in the China story”, she added.

Does this remind you of frequent moving of goal posts in universities, so that finally meeting last year’s criteria for promotion results in just a shrug at this year’s appraisal? And then there is the position of responsibility that always merited a promoted grade, until suddenly it didn’t. Or the promotion that was rescinded when it was – surprise! – revealed to be just a secondment. It is always justified in terms that the role has changed, become less central to the university’s mission, is much less onerous after the last restructure (with no justification) and so that’s why we have regraded the post AND reduced the hours credited to your workload. It always drives a coach and horses through the National Framework Agreement which has been quietly discarded by university managers.  And similarly, are you an academic who has built a reputation via the publication of scholarly monographs ? That is so over! The REF has ensured the supremacy of the science model which privileges journal articles supported by metrics of journal impact factors and citation indices. The promised reward seems to continually elude us, and even if confirmed, we understand it is temporary and contingent.

Many women will recognise the next step. As women take over roles, they are likely to be at a downgraded. This seemed to be confirmed by Ms Unsworth with this line on minimisation of role to BBC News: “Entertainment is a much more competitive market than news is, and has become increasingly competitive”. Good grief. Evidently, she is taking her cue from the kind of cabinet minister who seems set on running down their department, financially and in terms of reputation. Nothing is off limits for crush-the-opposition managerialism. Who cares about news in 2018? We’re only seeing the fall of western democratic institutions.

It is distressing to read the accounts of how many BBC Women were made to feel worthless. We remember the case in 2011 of Miriam O’Reilly who successfully pursued an employment tribunal case against the BBC for ageism and victimisation. Yesterday Victoria Derbyshire retweeted this message she received about herself “To be quite honest you’re nothing special.” Gracie suspected high-level briefing against the merits of her case, and Fran Unsworth, BBC Head of News is alleged to have said that Gracie worked part time. Unsworth denies this. 

It is all rather reminiscent of this piece I wrote two-and-a-half  years ago about the imposition on academics of unattainable targets, constant surveillance and audit, and the knowledge that any dip in ‘performance’ may see their contracts terminated. Academics, in cultural studies anyway, are sustained by scholarship which theorises their experience. I have often turned to the work of Nick Couldry (2005) who offers us the notion of ‘theatres of cruelty’ legitimised by a society which has taken a socially Darwinian turn. And if Gracie had suffered in such a theatre, she returned the favour yesterday. Much as we envied her the satisfaction of humiliating her seniors in a televised spectacle, we are aware that this must have been at a huge personal cost. We witnessed the ebbing of faith in an institution she had revered, and shuddered at the denigration of her talent. Like the superb Gracie, many academics measure their self-worth and define themselves by their work. Most are intrinsically motivated to do their best work, and a simple expression of thanks is often all that is required to secure their loyalty. Even that was denied. Gracie tells that she received no official appreciation as she stepped down. That is inexcusable incivility.

But on with the insults. Lord Hall proudly equivocated responsibility and boasted “Wherever I can, properly, we have been trying to appoint women to key roles at the BBC – key roles in news, key roles as correspondents and reporters in news”  even as he added: “That’s not saying I’m happy with where we are.” The most stunning revelation of wilful non-comprehension emerged when Lord Hall emphasised, “I don’t believe there is an old boys network, I believe in equality of opportunity” and added: “The idea of some old boys club, I abhor. That is not the way I believe that BBC should be or is.” At that point Jo Stevens MP asked Lord Hall how he had obtained his job as Director General.

In develpment Jo Stevens

Although the guilelessness was comical, this comment on Twitter by Esther Webber was perceptive  – and Jo Stevens retweeted: “This is why I don’t think the BBC leadership gets it”. #bbcpay #bbcwomen @BBCCarrie @NUJofficial

Some may say that the BBC Women are privileged to work in an organisation which permits them to openly criticize it. That is not the point, however. And it’s also not about the money, it’s about the shabby treatment and above all, it’s about the lies. As Gracie said herself, “We’re not in the business of producing toothpaste or tyres at the BBC. Our business is truth. We can’t operate without the truth”. And I’m sure there will shortly be much disingenuous managerial pontificating about ‘lessons learned’.

Universities have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to employee relations or dealing reasonably with scholars who exercise their right to criticize the system they work in. And again here. The Times Higher reported in 2014 that universities were forced to pay out £19 million in employment disputes,  and reports of bullying are rising in universities. It is this toxic culture that has seen many late-career women head for the exits.

CNN has a segment with Anderson Cooper titled Keeping them Honest which investigates the seedier side of politics, power and business. What we have all failed to realise is that with implacable liars, shame has no purchase, because they are shameless. I suggest that perhaps our leaders might consider themselves to be ‘in development’. Lessons in humanity, fairness and morality are urgently required to fill this developmental void.


Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism