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:
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.
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.
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:
“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”.
“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.