I am not going to begin by saying that I found it a difficult decision to take strike action. I didn’t struggle over the decision at all. That is not to say that I have no consideration for my students and colleagues, but that there is an urgent imperative in regard to defending the future of a public higher education system. I am on strike, sure, for my pay (which has shrunk in real terms) and my pension (with diminished benefits and more expensive contributions), but these are just the symptoms, the apparitions, of the effects of higher education and economic policy over recent decades. And It has all rather come to a head.
Over the last decade a higher education market has emerged. In England this has featured an economy of (private) student debt, competing institutions and financialisation. As part of the financialisation process and to improve their competitive edge, institutions must reduce their exposure to risk. And part of this is the discipline in regard to pay and working conditions. There has been a considerable increase in fixed-term contracts and increasing numbers of precarious roles and zero-hours working.
The state has a very important role in this. Instead of a state-backed higher education system, buffered from market vagaries by the state, in the marketised system, institutions must trade on their own financial value, status and reputation. The relevant feature of this is that each institution must engage in ongoing conscious assessment of organisational risk. It follows then that organisation’s decision making prioritises risk reduction. And hence we see an attack on staff pay, an attack on pensions and this dramatic increase in precarious working in the higher education sector. Marketised institutions tend to socialise their risk exposure to the people in the organisation. This means that students have a very financialised contractual relationship with the university and staff experience reduced pay and job security.
These are not good conditions for effective education because it creates perverse incentives related to measurable indicators factored in to the university’s sense of its own risk exposure. This is further amplified by an excessively competitive graduate jobs market with many graduates going for few quality and secure positions. While there are plenty of low paid, precarious jobs for graduates, especially in the gig economy. It is for the same reasons that there are fewer permanent posts in universities as it is elsewhere. All businesses become preoccupied with risk in conditions of austerity, or another way of looking at austerity is as the state withdraws from managing the economy. The condition of austerity is when we move toward a point at which each individual is competing with everyone else for resources that are artificially made scarce. And it is this, the pressures of debt and particularly the limited jobs market that are major factors, I am sure, in students’ declining mental health. They put themselves under so much pressure in order to try and get ahead and it can become unhealthily overly competitive.
You can see that for me this strike is much more political. I believe it is a political struggle for what others have called the soul of higher education. The choice is between a privatised, marketised system featuring an elitist and unequal system funded by student debt. Or, a public education system that is based on the principle that each individual can freely access lifelong learning. The principle that education is for the public good and not serving reductive economic objectives. And this strike is one further aspect of the growing struggle to define the future social, political and economic direction of the UK. Because, as it happens, if you may not have noticed, there is a general election on also. Where the political divisions are much clearer than they have been for decades. Do you want a small state, financialised, rentier economy with a privatised public sector? Or do you want the state to use its power to support and help manage the economy and public services in a coherent way? I’ll make no apologies about being so partisan in this regard but I wholeheartedly believe the latter. The principle of universalism in respect to health and education is the only reasonable basis for a civilised society.
But questions of affordability have vexed the debate about the state’s support for public services, whether we can afford, for example, free universal access to lifelong learning. In fact investing in public services stimulates demand in the economy. There is a fiscal stimulus which encourages longer term investment in the economy, which translates to higher quality and more secure employment (and improved productivity).
This strike is really about the defence of public education and it feels like a last line of defence. It is taking place in universities because in schools and colleges there has been such fragmentation that organising co-ordinated resistance is much more difficult than it used to be. After many years of dismantling public higher education, we now just have fragments of a public project and now it is the principles and values public education that must be defended.
And while the case to strike for me is clear and compelling, I like many colleagues feel deeply conflicted about having to take strike action. I feel a strong sense of vocation, a sense of duty as a public servant and out of a sense of responsibility to my students. But I also believe that action is necessary and justified.