Can Critical University Studies survive the toxic university ?

Several things in the news recently have made me want to write again about Critical University Studies (CUS) – a discipline that has been given momentum in the UK by the USS pensions strikes of spring 2018. As I visited a number of campus rallies and teach-outs, I became aware of a real thirst for analysis of the UK and global higher education landscape. The pensions issue seemed to be a conductor for a whole host of other grievances about marketization, financialization, audit culture, management by metrics and the distortions of league tables and concern with university ‘reputation’.  These objections have spawned critique from all areas of the academy, from blogs by experimental scientists (Bishop 2013, Colquhoun 2016 ) to theorised analysis in social science (Burrows 2012; Holmwood 2011;  Petersen and Davies 2010; Hall & Winn 2018), to perspectives from literary scholars (Warner 2014; 2015; Docherty 2011; 2014; 2015). This work has now coalesced under the banner of critical university studies (CUS) which in many cases contains (but is not confined to) expressions of discomfort at changes influenced by neoliberal and market fundamentalist ideologies. There are now three book series oriented towards the field, Palgrave, Johns Hopkins  and Berghahn , a journal, LATISS , a university research centre at Roskilde, Denmark, as well as an early career researcher network at the University of Cambridge.   These are all positive developments, although it is wise to be cautious about the ‘institutionalisation’ of CUS, as Eli Thorkelson advises.

CUS as an interdisciplinary field of study was inaugurated by a special issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor edited by Petrina and Ross in 2014. This and other subsequent issues drew attention to the effects of neoliberal policies on higher education institutions and sought to identify connections between neoliberal economic and political developments, such as the subsumption of academic labour to profit (Hall & Bowles 2016),  and changes to conditions of work and academic identities in (largely) western universities. The principles of  CUS are informed by a paradigm previously established in Critical Management Studies (CMS) (Butler and Spoelstra 2014). This involves:

  • A critique of power, control and inequality in universities,
  • A challenge to management knowledge and its ideological underpinnings,
  • An ethos of reflexivity and reflection on epistemological, ontological and methodological assumptions.

Some scholars in CUS would argue that the neoliberal structures of marketisation, consumerism, audit and league tables in UK universities lead to the perverse incentive to suppress academic freedom in those institutions (Morrish and Sauntson 2016; Morrish et al 2017). Some universities will act to defuse the force of government regulation and demands for surveillance and ‘accountability’; others will take advantage of the opportunities it affords. To this end, in the last decade, there has been a proliferation of workload models and policy portfolios: disciplinary, performance management, capability, sickness absence – all will have been revised and strengthened to fortify the managerial citadel.

So – back to recent news. As I started to write this piece, news came in about a tragic  death by suicide at Cardiff University in February. An inquest heard how Malcolm Anderson ended his life on campus early in the morning of February 19th. His close colleagues and his family testified to the amount of work Dr Anderson faced, including the requirement to mark 418 exam papers in 20 days.

I’m sure Cardiff will now make the usual noises about ‘lessons learned’, as Imperial College did after the death of Stefan Grimm in 2014.  I have no wish to be seen to exploit these cases for their harrowing personal details, but if we are to learn lessons, then we must know when such deaths, or long-term sicknesses occur and are attributed to overwork. It seems that the academic community did not know of Dr Anderson’s death until the inquest, some 3 or 4 months after the event.

When academics, both individually and collectively, demonstrate with evidence that workloads are too high to be safe, they are told to work smarter. When they complain that many forms of work are erased or undercounted by the workload model – dubbed ‘time laundering’ by Southampton UCU– this falls on deaf ears. When academics point to the incapacitating effects of management by metrics, they are told of a need to be accountable. We now see the consequences of this indifference and we wonder, along with another commentator on Twitter, how many more of our colleagues are just one more responsibility away from disaster.

It is insulting and abusive when universities charge academics with providing a flawless service to students, and then chisel away at the conditions and hours which would permit it to be accomplished. But the neoliberal academy requires the preservation of the myth of the coping academic and demands their enforced compliance, their subjection to surveillance, a strict curb on democracy, and the overarching impulse to protect revenue and reputation. Some scholars have even labelled the university as ‘bad boyfriend (Webster & Rivers 2018)  and Thesis Whisperer (2011). I would claim the working environment is simply toxic. As Sarah Amsler (2015) notes, there are consequences for the less able or non-compliant bodies; they will be refused and rendered aberrant. We see this already in the reaction of Cardiff University with its promise to ‘review the support available’ to lecturers who are struggling with workloads.  But that is not what the union members at Cardiff have been asking for; they have criticised the workload model from its inception and are demanding sustainable and humane workloads.

It is becoming clear that students are also experiencing intolerable pressure. The University of Bristol has been singled out, possibly unfairly, after 10 deaths by suicide in 18 months, because there are fears that coroners may not be reporting the full scale of cases. 

When newspapers report a crisis in mental health, and universities declare a review of ‘welfare’ and ‘support’, this only serves to position the locus of responsibility on the individual and their lack of ‘resilience’. There are even online courses to help academics rehabilitate to the culture of punishing overwork, at the same time as indemnifying universities against legal redress. These courses are now becoming compulsory. Here’s an example email from a Russell Group university sent to staff.

We need to mourn the individuals who are lost to academia, society and to their families, and then ask what is it about university structures and working conditions that has led to anyone’s death or serious illness. We should remind ourselves of a university’s legal obligation to prevent stress, not merely alleviate it. Please let us also think of the students who are left wondering whether they may have been part of the problem. They are not. They are the joy of the job. Yes, they have needs and make demands, but the problem is with universities which have seen fit to join a buildings and ‘student experience’ arms race without actually providing enough lecturers with the working conditions to fulfil the promise.

You wonder when university management will begin to take these issues seriously. They now need to be addressed and resolved, not ‘reviewed’ and ‘supported’. I marvel at the tendency of universities to fear internal critique, and yet their apparent appetite for critical opinion produced by private consultants and government number-crunchers (HESA, IFS, HEPI) is voracious, even when those studies hold up an unwelcome mirror in the form of league tables, retention figures, LEO data etc. Additionally, universities and other HEIs monitor and subscribe to online fora such as HEPI, Research Fortnight and Wonkhe. So why, when universities seem to wish to metricise every action and learn from every available data point, are they so averse to listening to their own staff?

So what, then, awaits the academic employee who seeks to publish their analysis of the effects of academic capitalism, the damage of outcomes-based performance management or the ascent of managerialism? As many will know, I have some familiarity with this, documented here and here.

So with the benefit of experience, I would like to make this observation about the relatively new field of Critical University Studies. It occurs to me it is placed in an unhelpful paradox – one which is not faced by its sibling disciplines of Critical Business Studies or Critical Legal Studies. The paradox is this – even if making a general observation about universities, the scholar seems to imply criticism of the institution in which they work. This is made exceedingly clear in a thread of tweets by Eric Lybeck on  May 30th 2018.


How does one criticize a tendency to undermine academic freedom via social media policies without being able to offer an example from one’s own experience? The academic wishing to draw on expertise and knowledge must, it seems, be pitted at odds with their employer and exposed to considerable personal risk.

To digress just a little, though the issues are connected, we can recognise a pattern identified in a recent piece by Carolyn Gallagher  in which universities seek to distance themselves from academic employees who engage with controversial topics in public debate, and are attacked in those public forums after doing so. Sometimes powerful state funding agencies or media commentators call for the dismissal of the academic. This can lead university managers, many of whom prioritize ‘reputation’ over any wider commitment to scholarship or to a public beyond the university’s walls, to denounce or even discipline the employee, even while proclaiming their right to academic freedom.

In the UK, academic freedom, and the freedom to criticise one’s own university in public, or the system generally, is enshrined in law, and most university statutes and articles of government reflect this. However, in 2017, academic freedom became a moral panic in the UK (UK Government Dept. for Education 2018), and students and academic staff were blamed for undermining it with alleged excessive regard for trigger warnings and safe spaces. However, in reality, it is university managers who display rather different thresholds of tolerance for critics of higher education policy and practice. Too often for university managers the issue is never about academic freedom; it is cast as being about civility, or they will shelter behind  policies  on ‘dignity and respect’; or they will claim ‘reputational damage’.

CUS is very much the canary down the mine of academic freedom.  The process I endured prefigured the kind of despotic capriciousness we associate with the Donald Trump zeitgeist. In an era of weakened trade unions and managerial unaccountability, vice chancellors must accept that, for academic freedom to thrive, requires very thorough protections for those scholars who offer a challenge to ‘the university’ from within. There is a very simple resolution, of course, and it already exists. Universities must observe the safeguards enshrined in law, and they must become more democratic and open to scrutiny from the members of the academic community who constitute them. As Judith Butler wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, “Censorship is always an indirect confession of fear. The censor exposes himself as a fearful being. He fears speech and seeks to contain it. His fear attributes to his opponent’s speech a power that it may or may not have”. For the sake of scholars facing oppressive and hostile structures, let our speech be free and let it be heard.


Amsler, Sarah. 2015. The Education of Radical Democracy. London: Routledge.

Burrows, Roger. 2012. Living with the h-Index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60 (2): 355-372.

Bishop, Dorothy. 2013. Journal impact factors and REF 2014. Accessed June 6th 2018

Colquhoun, David. 2016. More on bullying at Imperial College London: What’s being done?   Accessed June 6th 2018

Docherty, Thomas. 2011. The unseen academy. Times Higher. November 10th.   Accessed June 6th 2018

Docherty, Thomas. 2014. Thomas Docherty on academic freedom. Times Higher. December 4th 

Accessed June 6th 2018

Docherty, Thomas. 2015. Universities at War. London: Sage.

Gallagher, Carolyn. 2018. War on the ivory tower: Alt Right attacks on university professors. The Public Eye, 94, Spring 2018.

Hall, Richard and Bowles, Kate. 2016. Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. Workplace, 28. 30-47.

Hall, Richard and Winn, Joss. (Eds.). 2018. Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury.

Holmwood, John. 2011. TRACked and FECked: How audits undermine the arts, humanities and social sciences. Accessed 5th June 2018.

Morrish, Liz. 2015. Raising the bar: the metric tide that sinks all boats. Academic Irregularities blog. Accessed 1st June 2018.

Morrish, Liz and Sauntson, Helen. 2016. Performance management and the stifling of academic freedom and knowledge production. Journal of Historical Sociology.  29.1. 42-64.  DOI: 10.1111/johs.12122

Morrish, Liz. 2017a. Stress fractures: One year on. Academic Irregularities.

Morrish, Liz. 2017b. Why the audit culture made me quit. Times Higher. March 2nd. Accessed June 6th 2018.

Morrish, Liz. and The Analogue University Writing Collective. 2017. Academic identities in the managed university: Neoliberalism and resistance at Newcastle University. Australian Universities’ Review, 59 (2), 23-35.

Petersen, Eva.B. and Davies, Bronwen. 2010. In/Difference in the neoliberalised university.  Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences, 3 (2): 92-109.

Petrina, Stephen. and Ross, Wayne. 2014. Critical university studies: workplace, milestones, crossroads, respect, truth. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, 23: 62-71.

UK Government, Department for Education. 2018 (May). Sam Gyimah hosts free speech summit.

Accessed June 6th 2018

Warner, Marina. 2014. Diary: Why I Quit. London Review of Books 36 (17): 42-43.  Accessed June 6th 2018

Warner, Marina. 2015. Learning my lesson. London Review of Books 37 (6): 8-14.

Accessed June 6th 2018



Trigger warnings, safe spaces and common sense.

Scene 1. The postponed drama. Last week the Danish hostage drama series Below the Surface was not aired on BBC 4. There was no explanation offered but I took it to be out of respect to the victims of the act of terror in Carcassonne the previous day, Friday 23rd March. The following week the drama resumed, and the continuity announcer duly offered the explanation I had anticipated.

Was this a trigger warning – a concession to snowflakes, or a sensitive realisation that the content of this hostage drama might reasonably cause distress to friends or relatives still learning details of the tragedy in France? To my shame, the cancellation caught me by surprise. I had been expecting to spend my Saturday evening transfixed by suspense in the safety of my living room. To find another film substituting in that spot made me, instead, think about somebody other than myself.

And that is the point. Though we hear a lot about people who claim their free speech or liberty is infringed by safe spaces, trigger warning, no platforming or policies on hate speech, it is usually from people whose rights and comforts are not generally intruded upon. They are so unaccustomed to having to shift perspective to see the world from another’s vantage point that any attempts to decentralize their privilege appear to them as an unwarranted attack.

So there was the dilemma of the BBC: mild irritation of viewers having to wait for another week to catch up with the drama versus a thoughtless misjudgement which might exacerbate the grief and shock of other human beings. Common sense and consideration point to the obvious choice.

Scene 2. A classroom in a state college in upstate New York in 1990. The class: LING252 Introduction to Phonetics. Topic: The articulation of consonant sounds. The teaching resource was a video with the innocuous title of The Articulation of Consonants. Perfect. The classroom was linked to a central Audio Visual hub which controlled the relay of the video to the classroom at a pre-arranged time. I had chosen the video from the catalogue purely on the basis of the title – I had not viewed it. I greeted the class and briefly reprised the main points of the articulation of consonants to prepare them for the video. And at the appointed minute it started.

The film was in black and white, which surprised me. The credits acknowledged it as a product of the US Veteran’s Administration, which was also unexpected. The film opened with a shot closing in on the profile of a seated man. With no introduction, the next view was a close up of the man’s profile, minus the prosthetic which had covered the missing left side of his face.

There was a clue in the military origin of the film. The subject was clearly a veteran whose gunshot wound to the face afforded students of phonetics an unobstructed view of his entire vocal tract. I was incredulous. I’d never seen anything like this except in an anatomy laboratory. As the man started to talk, and the movements of his tongue, soft palate and lips took shape, a student screamed. Others were momentarily horrified. As the video was streamed from a remote location on campus, I had no means of stopping it. But anyway, it was absolutely the most fascinating demonstration I had ever seen. To their eternal credit, the class hung in with it, and a great deal was learned, on all dimensions.

I didn’t feel the need to stop using that remarkable video though, but I did make sure, on future occasions, that students were better prepared to see it. If this can be called a trigger warning, this is how I went about it. Principally, I tried to make sure they were all able to visit the local medical school’s anatomy dissection laboratory during the course of the module. There they were able to view and handle dissected anatomical specimens of head and neck, larynx, tongue, brain etc. This helped build familiarity and break down the yuk factor. They were better able to visualize how a bullet could cause such a terrible injury, and how a prosthesis might be designed to remediate it. Importantly, they were able to ask questions and make choices about how much they wished to engage with these teaching materials.

Scene 3. Introducing myself to first year students. As a lecturer I held to a principle about coming out as a lesbian to students. There are those who think it is private information and not necessary to share with students. On the other hand, they wouldn’t question the practice of straight lecturers who will inadvertently and unconsciously reveal their sexuality to students. They will mention spouses or children and in other ways cement the implication that they are heterosexual. And this is entirely appropriate and welcome. Students like a certain amount of self-revelation and they appreciate honesty and candour in the classroom. This is denied to the LGBT lecturer who decides to conceal their identity. Not only that, you lose the opportunity – I prefer to see it as an obligation – to be a role model. I really don’t like the term, with its implications that students should want to emulate some supposed virtue, but what I mean is, that at least students see you standing there, reasonably competent at your job, approachable and interested in teaching them.

I would always seize the opportunity to come out at first encounter. Day 1. Introduce myself, teaching and research interests, and then, “As a lesbian I’m very willing to discuss issues of sexual identity with students or support them when they are questioning their sexuality. You can find my contact details on the syllabus and consider my office a safe space for those discussions.” And many did. So what did I mean by a safe space? That a student would not need to fear being judged or derided. They wouldn’t need to explain or justify beyond what they felt necessary. They could rely on finding an older person who had been in their shoes and whose currently stable identity had been tested, interrogated and retrieved from the depths of shame and fear. That did not mean there was an absence of vigorous argument in some of those cases. There was often also discussion of ‘passing’ and covering and how that might protect a person from danger sometimes.

As I have said in these pages before, it is important to remember that the majority of undergraduate students are in their late teens. Let’s also remember that those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender have probably spent their entire childhood hiding their identities and feelings. Schools can be somewhat unregulated spaces of homophobia and sexism. Studies by Stonewall show that 45% of trans teens have attempted suicide and 45% of LGBT teens have been bullied at school because of their sexuality of gender presentation.  Research by me and my colleague Helen Sauntson has shown that when young LGBT teens talk about their school experiences, their discourse is imbued with markers of illegitimation At the same time, our analysis of coming out stories shows that the climate at university offers a more accepting environment where young people can find their identities are validated by the institutional structures (Morrish & Sauntson 2007). Furthermore, the availability of LGBT student societies and organisations can bring about a transformation of confidence and self-worth. Meeting other LGBT young people, sometimes for the first time can be transformative. Research by my partner, Kathleen O’Mara shows that when students work for equality and representation with other LGBT students and  faculty, this can be a life-changing experience (O’Mara 1997). This of course requires acknowledging the organising principles located in identity politics. In this instance, it means realising you are a member of a sexual minority and that you may have faced discrimination and hatred, but you have common cause with others, and together you can effect change.

It should be obvious now that there are institutional and personal dangers when the university spaces occupied by diverse groups are not safeguarded for all. This is documented very recently here and here. Add to that institutional refusal to tackle sexual harassment seriously, and it is no wonder that universities now appear rather intimidating and exclusionary places, and, as a consequence, we see a huge rise in anxiety among students.

There is a tension when universities are required by the Office for Students to meet apparently conflicting agendas: to guarantee ‘free speech’ and to eradicate ‘no platforming’ policies – all at the same time as ensuring equality of outcomes for BME, WP and students of all genders. That goal is unlikely to be met when the campus culture signals that students from these these groups are somehow less entitled to belong.

These contradictions, amplified in the media, are now the subject of a recent parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR) , chaired by Harriet Harman on 27th March. This concluded there was no evidence of a wholesale censorship of debate on university campuses as some media reporting had suggested, but warned “there were nevertheless factors at work that actively limited free speech in universities.”

This report was responding to the annual free speech university rankings published by Spiked Online with its breathless headlines on ‘the new blasphemies on campus’. Among these appear to be infractions of legally-mandated policies (which you might also find endorsed by other respectable employers), such as:

 Free Speech and External Speaker policies

 Bullying and Harassment policies

 Equal Opportunities policies

In the UK, such policies offer little more than a hat tip towards compliance with the law, eschewing any measurable impact on equality and diversity. It is still enough to have the team at Spiked Online clutching their pearls though. A piece by Tom Slater from 28th March refers to ‘transgender ideology’ (whatever is meant by that) and alludes to a forbidding climate for free speech, even if actual prohibition is hard to prove.

Witness for the defence is Jim Dickinson who blasted out a thread of tweets around Christmas time, and followed up with this excellent piece in January 2018 in which he tries to offer a another perspective based around respecting and safeguarding those students “who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence. And the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.”

What if this is not an issue of free speech prohibition at all, but instead an issue of old fashioned values of consideration and common sense. What if defending ‘protected characteristics’ is essential to making sure the academy legitimates the presence of very different groups of people? And what if we decided not to call it infantilisation, but instead recognise it as humanity?



I am grateful to @eSocSci for sending me the link to this thoughtful piece for creating a respectful classroom environment.

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…..


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

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism