The bitter struggle for the soul of education

I am not under any romantic illusion about the strike, about striking even. Sure, the sense of solidarity and the camaraderie of colleagues and supporters are fantastic. As is the chance to reimagine the way we do things in higher education. But we are in dispute with our employers. Our professional working relationship is disputed and this is disruptive and leaves strikers deeply conflicted. Striking involves much considerable emotional labour.

After six days on strike there is a sense that this is going to be a long struggle. I began to feel this way at the end of last week. The strikers I have spoken to suggest a similar reading of the situation.

That is not to say that there has not been some shift by the employers’ representatives, Universities UK (UUK) and UCEA, both have offered to reopen talks. This has been achieved as a result of strong strike action by UCU members across 60 institutions in the UK. Last time we struck in February 2018, the feel of the action was one of nervous energy, of excitement. Many of us were new to this kind of action. We didn’t know how the strike would go and what impact we would have. We did have an effect though, we forced the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel to improve the transparency and accountability of the pension scheme. The fact that USS and UUK then backtracked from the findings approved by the JEP is a big part of why we are back out on strike. The character of the current strike is one of gravity; activists, strikers and supporters are increasingly clear about the scale of the struggle ahead. This is matched by growing belief that this fight can be won.

The other part of why we are on strike is pay: pay and the gender and ethnic pay gap. What the (University and College Union) UCU has exposed at both a national level and within individual universities is the shocking level of precarity in the sector. I don’t think I have had a sense of the scale of it until our General Secretary, Jo Grady, came to speak to Cambridge UCU before the end of the strike ballot. But more importantly from the local work done by the CUCU Raise the Bar campaign on casualisation. The scale of the problem in Cambridge is much more considerable than the University of Cambridge would have us think. What we see is a picture of higher education as a vast army of precarious and casualised staff, with a decreasing proportion of permanent tenured position. According to the UCU, around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the sector remain on fixed-term contracts, with many more living precariously on contracts which are nominally open-ended but which build in redundancy dates. There are 37,000 teaching staff on fixed-term contracts, the majority of them hourly paid. In Cambridge, almost half the undergraduate teaching is undertaken by people in precarious employment.

The accounts of precarious working in Cambridge have been heard on strike rallies and in teach outs during the recent strike action. They have been shocking and are at odds with the University’s projected image. Reputation has become all for Cambridge. The vast expenditure on selling, preserving and extracting value from the University’s brand cannot disguise the deceit. For UK higher education is now a part of the gig economy, a sweatshop of precarious workers. Many precarious workers are lured by misrepresentations about the quality and reputation of the UK higher education. There have been some truly heartbreaking accounts of people thinking they have got a job at a world-leading university only to find that they are working for a temporary employment service that disbars them from putting the University of Cambridge on their CV, they have no holidays and no sick pay. If they factor all the things they do in trying to make a sustainable living like applying for jobs or making grant applications then their pay falls woefully short of what is needed to live on. Mangers’ justification in terms of the advantages of flexible working or when senior tenured university office holders characterise precarious staffs’ experience as a normal rite of passage, they sound really empty and out of touch to the individuals who experience the harsh reality and indignity of precarious working.

Let us see it for what it really is: UK Higher Education is now operating as a pyramid scheme.

So why is this turning into such major dispute? The reason for this (and I have written about this previously) is that pay and pensions are really on the symptom of underlying causes. The primary issue is in the role of the state in education. Or we should say lack of state involvement. The sector relies on debt funding, from students but also in raising capital. It relies on contract research or third-stream income, like from Cambridge Assessment here in Cambridge. The calculation and minimisation of risk in each institution is an essential feature where the state no longer underwrites public institutions. Naturally, there is a drive to reduce risk, one way of doing this is to make increasing numbers of staff bear the risk through precarious employment. The injustice is that this falls on new and junior staff, while established staff can enjoy quite a good secure and privileged existence. I do not wish to create antagonism between precarious and tenured staff but I do encourage senior staff with secure employment to show some solidarity with the precarious university worker. Please join staff and students on the picket line, join the UCU if you are not a member.

The current dispute between the UCU and universities is a battle for the heart of higher education. I would say it goes beyond that, it is a struggle to sustain the principle of a universal right to free lifelong learning and academic freedoms.