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.
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.
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.