Workplace nursery provision: that’s a good thing right?

This post follows my previous on a proposed new nursery at the University of Cambridge. Following a campaign by staff in the Faculty of Education, the university balloted eligible staff (mainly academics and senior administrators) on the proposal. The Grace (Cambridge’s term for a proposal) was passed by 777 votes to 151. This means that the university will progress to looking for a provider to run the new nursery.

The campaign against the proposal began with very local concerns about the impact on the Faculty of Education and the staff. Those interests are set against what might be argued to be the greater good. The greater good being much-needed childcare provision in the university. As we started to look into the university’s proposal, we found that there were issues that should be of general concern:

  • Equality and diversity – the cost of nursery provision (as it is in most private nursery provision) is £1000 per child per month. Even with government subsidy and salary sacrifice, lower paid workers in the university cannot afford this or any childcare. Given the ethnic representation in the lower paid group, this provision contributes to increased inequality within the university workforce.
  • Marketisation and privatisation – nursery provision has shifted from being a public provision (often run by local councils) to being privatised provision. This results in a fragmented system that is underpinned by investor returns and what appears to be lower quality provision. Marketisation also contributes to inequality since competition results in winners and losers.

So in answer to my question: nursery provision is a good thing right? The answer here is ‘no’ – it contributes to inequality and threatens diversity in the university. It contributes to further marketisation and privatisation of nursery provision, where we should be demanding universal free childcare.

My main point is that institutions like the University of Cambridge have the power to use their institutional voice to challenge government policy on nursery and childcare provision in England. Staff can use their collective voice to demand the university do this.

The proposed nursery is a highly political issue and we should be critically informed and act appropriately.

The frustration (and anger) in my previous post was impossible to hide, especially toward what I considered to be, the self-interested behaviour of the better-paid staff in the university who supported this proposal. My anger has now subsided (a little), I am now more motivated to encourage colleagues and the university to think about the political and economic aspects of the university’s current policy toward workplace provision. It needs to be seen for what it is – a piece of austerity in our own backyard and a contribution to the continued break up of universal free public childcare and nursery provision.

These things are part of the deepening of inequality in society, the fracturing of communities and, yes, they contribute to the dissatisfaction that is fueling growing far-right sentiment. We, as staff in the university, need to be critical and take responsibility. We must act beyond our immediate self-interests. We must force the  – our – university to start making a stand.

Which side are you on? Self-interest versus solidarity in higher education union organising

Workplace nursery and childcare provision in the University of Cambridge falls well short of the demand for places. In recent decades in the UK nursery provision, which used to be run by councils, has been privatised. In the privatised system supply has not kept up with demand and employers have come under pressure to provide workplace nursery and childcare places.

What I want to focus on here is the problem of self-interest amongst academic staff. There are a significant number of academic staff who are supportive of the proposed additional nursery provision and will turn a blind eye to the conditions of lower-paid staff. This is of even greater concern when there is a degree of equivocation about the proposed nursery from the Cambridge University Branch of the University and College Union (CUCU). This is the representation of self-interest and a strategic error by the union’s branch executive in my opinion. What I argue here is that to be effective in future action, UCU must build and organise from the bottom up, it must act in the interest of all staff, not just in the interest of academic staff.

This all comes off the back of the biggest strike ever in the UK higher education sector which was a bitter dispute over pensions between the universities’ representative, Universities UK (UUK), and the University and College Union (UCU). That strike was successful because support and assistant staff and students supported UCU’s action. My view is that we can influence the university to be more forthright in opposing the current marketisation and financialization of higher education, but that can only be achieved by organising with all staff at all levels. The UCU cannot achieve it on its own. If we allow ourselves to be divided through self-interest, then we will lose.

Background: the proposed nursery and local union organising in the university

The proposed nursery building is to be built on the car park of the Faculty of Education, in Hills Road in Cambridge, I am the Faculty’s UCU representative. There are approximately 200 full- and part-time staff in the Faculty. I represent around 70 or 80 UCU members, the membership is mostly made up of academic staff, but there are also academic-related staff, researchers, assistant staff and doctoral students.

The Faculty UCU is the largest organised representative staff body in the Faculty. Following the pensions strike, Faculty union members have been motivated to take a collective and active role in the Faculty. There was a general view that collective decision making and collegiality had to be fought for both in the Faculty and in the university. Our aim after the strike has been to ensure that staff in the Faculty are represented more effectively.

The issue of the nursery came to a head when a notice was published in Cambridge University’s weekly journal The Reporter in May 2018. A Faculty UCU member alerted me to the apparent advanced stage of the proposed nursery planning, it seemed like a fait accompli. We quickly assembled a working group and found that there was strong feeling about the proposal from assistant staff. It will greatly affect them if car park access is lost; public transport is inadequate and many, because of house prices in Cambridge, live a distance away. While the university has said that alternative parking provision would be provided, staff have little faith in this. I get the impression from assistant staff they just feel that they have been ignored on this issue. And while some of their arguments might be dismissed as nimbyism, I believe they have not been adequately consulted and they would be disadvantaged if the proposal was to go ahead. My instinct as UCU rep was to work together with all staff in the Faculty to oppose the proposal, not principally based on local issues, but on wider concerns about financialization, governance (i.e. lack of consultation) and equality and diversity.

We petitioned for a ‘Discussion’ in the Senate House to be followed by a ballot on the proposed nursery. ‘Graces’ or proposals, ‘Discussions’ and ballots are the pillars of university democracy in Cambridge. Discussions allow members of the Regent House to present arguments for and against issues of concern to the university, there is no debate and limited right to reply, but ‘remarks’ (i.e. the speeches) are transcribed and published in The Reporter. The issue of membership of the Regents House led to much debate in the Faculty because most assistant staff are excluded from membership and therefore have no right to speak or vote. Membership of (or the roll of) the Regents House (a body which dates back to the thirteenth century) is limited to University Officers; effectively academics, academic-related staff and senior administrators. In sum, not only would assistant staff be adversely affected by the proposed nursery, they could not access the democratic processes that exist in the university to fight their corner.

Union and academic staff equivocation over the proposed nursery

In the Faculty, I became aware that the strongest opposition to the nursery proposal is from assistant staff. The nursery will affect them most and they are the least likely to be able to make use of the new provision. I believe most UCU members in the Faculty are also opposed to the proposed nursery. However, I have been made aware that some academic staff in the Faculty are either supportive of the nursery proposal or are undecided. More importantly, the official response of Cambridge UCU Branch to my request for support on the issue also resulted in equivocation. This is their statement:

Owing to the documented need for expanding childcare provision at the University, CUCU’s executive committee does not feel able to oppose the building of the proposed nursery, but we feel it is important that the concerns of members in the Faculty of Education are widely known. We note, in particular, the issues raised about consultation with staff and of affordability across the University’s childcare centres, which CUCU’s Equalities Working Group will be seeking to address in the coming months

In response, I acknowledged that I thought the politics of this situation was difficult: nursery provision is in great demand and that will benefit, particularly, women, versus what appears to be NIMBY-motivated opposition. There is, however, more to this especially in respect to governance (lack of meaningful consultation) and issues around affordability, equality and diversity.

Organising from the bottom up

Following on the from the pension strike I have, along with union colleagues in the Faculty, attempted to develop union organisation across the Faculty. I have encouraged assistant staff to join Unison and to coordinate our work in representing all staff. This approach, I find is not unique or without precedence. In the second edition of Notes from Below1, there are series of articles considering union organising in the technology industry. An anonymous software engineer explains that most employees in large tech companies are not six-figure salaried software developers, there are large numbers of support staff and service staff. In attempting to organise in the tech industry, the author explains how organising is more successful when they organise from the bottom. Those workers on middle and higher salaries are less motivated to organise but respond as service staff become increasingly organised. Better paid staff are likely to be aware of the injustice and exploitation in the organisation, but they can be indifferent because of their material conditions, they find themselves in an ambiguous situation in relation to capital and labour.

This is similar to the situation in the University of Cambridge, where permanent academic staff have relatively higher salaries and better conditions of work and benefits. The union organisation in the university contributes to a two-tier system, with UCU representing academic and academic-related staff and Unison or Unite representing assistant and support staff. During the pension strike support and assistant staff were –  even though many did not take action – supportive of UCU members in their action, as were the majority of students. I would argue that the strike was so successful because of the support from non-unionised assistant staff and students.

Strategically, Cambridge UCU should be doing more to organise from the bottom up and building solidarity. The effects of current economic and higher education policy are likely to continue into the future. We will only change things by building a movement based on a broad coalition of higher education staff. If UCU is to be successful in future disputes which there are likely to be, it will need the support of staff across the university. Turning our backs on assistant staff at the moment is counterproductive.

The danger of self-interest

In my speech in the Discussion, I made the point that £1000-per week childcare is unaffordable for many lower paid staff. I calculated that a couple with two children earning £60k per annum and living and renting in Cambridge would struggle. I therefore conclude that those supporting the proposed nursery are doing so largely (and perhaps understandably) out of self-interest – they are those who can afford childcare. I also hear the argument that more workplace nursery places will benefit women who continue to be the main carer. However, it is important to listen to the lowest paid women, this from a colleague, a member of staff in the Faculty of Education and a single mum.

I have to work a minimum of 16 hours a week to claim help towards my childcare costs (ie nursery from 9 months – 3 years). In reality, I have to pay for 17 hours a week to cover drop off and pick up.

17 hours a week childcare a month amounts to about £510 in my case.

The government pays up to £300 of that amount. It is capped so that you can only claim help towards a certain amount. Any hours you work over that you have to pay the full price yourself. So, for example, if I wanted to work full time, my wage would be around £1300. My childcare costs would be £1275 for the month, with £300 help from the government, I would be working to pay for childcare.

The proposed nursery will not change her material conditions, it offers her no opportunity to advance her career. Furthermore, since my colleague is trapped by childcare costs in low pay because of the lack of support from the university or government, her conditions contribute to the university’s gender pay gap.

Why then would there be limited support from academic staff and such equivocation from CUCU executive, when the university’s proposal has so many flaws and is not inclusive? Any nursery provision in the university should be available to all. If we support egalitarian principles, equality and inclusivity, why would we support exclusive nursery provision? Furthermore, why would we – why would anyone – support provision with such a flawed consultation process that it has allowed little or no representation from the lowest paid staff in the Faculty or university?

The only real explanation is self-interest, that better-paid staff believe that their needs should come before other lower paid staff. The self-interested perspective of some academic staff at the university is worrying. I imagine that the entitlement and privilege inherent in this institution can easily prepossess the attitudes of academic staff, even union members and members of CUCU executive. Of course, it might be claimed that academic staff in the university make important contributions through research that has the potential to influence many people’s lives positively. It can be argued that academics in the university should be given preferential treatment. I, however, strongly disagree with this. The work of academic staff should not be seen as the brilliance of individuals but the culmination of collective effort. No one in the university can do anything without buildings, facilities, libraries, administrative or technical support. The environment that inspires us is repaired and renewed by maintenance staff, cleaners and gardeners.

It is easy to believe that as academics in the University of Cambridge we are somehow special and while there are some very talented people working in this and other universities, the opportunities that we have had to succeed and excel are a result of a lot of luck. I know how I came to be an academic here and much as I would like to think it is my innate genius, I have to concede that it is largely serendipitous. Of course, I have worked hard and taken the opportunities that have come my way – nonetheless, my success and opportunities are underpinned by good fortune. If we forget this, we slide into arrogance and ignorance and become consumed with self-interest. The positions we hold come with them a great deal of responsibility. It is important that we respect that responsibility and act in the interest of all the members of the university.

We can only bring about change through collective solidarity. If staff and, in particular, union members allow themselves to be divided over this controversial issue of a nursery then nothing will change.

What should we do?

What can we do about this – about the University’s opaque and expedient financially-led decision making and about the wider political-economic context that has propagated the current conditions? It is necessary to resist, but not alone – not as individuals. We have to oppose and demand transparency, democratic decision making, fairness and equality collectively. We must insist that the University, instead of acquiescing to the conditions of fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism, that has turned education into a crapshoot, uses its institutional capital and international reputation to put pressure on governments to properly fund education – through fiscal means and not through private finance, student debt and excessive amounts of applied research. It is only through collective solidarity that these changes will happen. On the issue of the nursery, it is necessary to build collective solidarity among all staff; academic, academic-related, researchers, teaching associate, assistant and support staff.

As a union, we must organise from the bottom up. If we allow divisions through self-interest things will not change. The university will continue on its current path of marketisation, financialization, private capital accompanied by downward pressure on staff pay and conditions.

The question you have to ask is which side are you on? Self-interest and capital or equality, fairness and staff solidarity?

The Higher Education pensions dispute: a perfect storm of neo-liberalism, marketisation and austerity

The current dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) and the representative body of the employers, Universities UK (UUK), is over imposed cuts to pension benefits. According to the UCU, the annual retirement income of academics will be reduced by 10 to 40 percent. This is on top of real-terms pay cuts of 19.5 percent since 2009/102, while surpluses in UK Universities have gone up from £1.85 billion in 2014/15 to £2.34 billion in 2015/163Ibid. The accounting model changed in 2016/17 but the sector continued to secure considerable surpluses..

The dispute is more than about pensions though: on the surface, it appears to be a debate about the justification for changes to pension benefits, but beneath is a fundamental argument about political economy and the further push toward a privatised and marketized higher-education sector. Within the sector, within universities, decisions are being made without sufficient democratic scrutiny from members of staff and the wider community. Moreover, many academics may be unaware of the economic underpinnings of what appears to be conflict over pension affordability and university staffs’ pay and conditions. I set out here the underlying political and economic issues that are driving policy in government and that have led to the decision to cut pension benefits. I hope you will see that the pension cuts are the symptom of a deeper malady. I wish to show that the inherent threats to higher education are way beyond being about the comfort of academics in their retirement. And that anyone who believes strongly in the value of scholarship, research and learning should show solidarity with the striking members of the UCU.

I begin with some background to the dispute over pensions and the role of my institution, the University of Cambridge, which along with Oxford has taken a particular stance. I follow this with a quick summary of the economic context. Finally, I bring these elements together and demonstrate that we are in the conditions of a perfect storm for higher education. The underlying debates about the projection and level of risk in the pension fund are connected to government economic choices.

Finally, I argue that universities have a moral duty and should not simply accept the political and economic orthodoxy, rather than acquiescing to the parochial rationality of neo-liberalism and marketization.

Background to the dispute

The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was valued at £41.6 billion in 2014 and £60 billion in 2017. The most pessimistic valuation leaves the pension fund with a shortfall of £5.1 billion in 2017. On the other hand, a best estimate valuation suggests a surplus of £8.1 billion. The question of whether there is, in fact, a shortfall depends very much on the model used to calculate future liabilities, growth and risk. An important factor in this is what is deemed to be an acceptable level of risk. Universities have been particularly keen to reduce the level of risk and a strategy of “de-risking” has been adopted. Equities, are higher risk investments than government bonds or gilts but offer higher returns. However — and I shall explain why in the next section — gilts offer a much lower rate of return than equities. Between 2011 and 2017 the percentage of the USS fund that has been in equities has reduced from 55 percent to 37 percent. While the amount invested in gilts has gone up from 13 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2017. Reducing the level of risk leads to a reduction in the rate of returns and is a factor in the pessimistic valuation of the USS fund.

It is the issue of risk that is central to the current dispute. According to Michael Otsuka, who analysed the results of the employers’ consultation over USS4, only a minority (32 percent) of employers were looking for changes to the way in which contributions are set and assets and liabilities calculated. In other words, most employers were happy with the scheme as it stood. However, 73 percent of Oxbridge institutions (which presumably includes constituent colleges as well as universities) were opposed to the current arrangements.

The USS is based on last-man-standing mutuality which means that should all the universities go bust the liabilities would be passed to the last remaining universities. This means that Oxford and Cambridge, as the richest institutions, would bear the liabilities in the unlikely event that the other universities went to the wall. This also assumes that government would not intervene should the whole of the higher education sector go in to complete meltdown.

Otsuka points out that in their submissions to the September consultation on USS both Oxford and Cambridge expressed concern about the level of risk in the last-man-standing scheme. Cambridge objected that:

The University (and the other financially stronger institutions) continues to lend its balance sheet to the sector, which contains the cost of pension provision for all employers. In a competitive market for research and student places the University would be concerned if this appeared to be having an adverse effect on the University’s competitiveness (by allowing competitor universities access to investment financing or reducing their PPF costs in a way that would not be possible on a stand-alone basis).

Within this, Cambridge acknowledges that higher education is and will remain a competitive ‘market’, there is no sense in which Cambridge characterises itself as a public institution there to provide a universally available service in collaboration with the rest of the sector.

This also became evident to me when the government were trying to hurry through the Higher Education and Research Bill at the time the General Election was announced in April 2017. I approached the Conservative Member of Parliament, in whose constituency my Faculty sits, with objections to the Bill. Heidi Allen MP explained to me in her response, that the University of Cambridge had already been in touch with her to explain that they were happy with the Bill as it stood. I am aware how Cambridge, and most likely Oxford too, are seemingly sanguine about the marketisation of higher education and are preparing themselves to exist in this environment.

USS have reacted to a minority (42 percent), of whom, according to Otsuka, Oxford and Cambridge are the most prominent and hawkish members. The majority, however, were happy with the current levels of risk. The UCU describe how on the 23 January 2018, Chair of the USS Board, Sir Andrew Cubie, used a casting vote at a meeting of UUK-UCU Joint Negotiating Committee to remove Defined Benefits from all members of USS. The USS now transfers to a Defined Contribution scheme, where all contributions are placed in an individual investment portfolio. The risk is entirely transferred to contributing members of the USS. It also means a reduction in pensions of between 10 and 40 percent, particularly affecting younger entrants to the scheme.

The national economy does not work like a big family home

It is a common belief that a national economy works much the same as a household; that income must at least equal outgoings and preferably income must exceed expenditure – for that rainy day. Yet, there is a major difference between household economics and a national economy. In a household economy, expenditure is independent of income, one or both can change without really affecting the other. In a national economy, government income or taxation is dependent on its spending. The reason for this is that government spending is the only means by which currency can be introduced into that economy. Government spending creates currency, taxation effectively destroys it.

Within a national economy, all deficits and all surpluses must sum to zero. To understand this, imagine if there were just two people in a national economy. If one person has a surplus, i.e. they have more income the outgoings, the other person must be running a deficit, they must have more outgoings than income. The sum of deficits and surpluses is zero because there is a fixed supply of currency. Now imagine adding more people until there are 60 or 70 million, the sum of deficits and surpluses must still be zero for a fixed supply of currency.

By convention, nations divide economies into three sectors: the public sector (government spending and taxation) the private sector  (households and businesses) and ‘overseas’ (imports and exports). The sum of public-, private- and overseas-sector surpluses or deficits must sum to zero. The UK has an overseas deficit, we are a net importer, so currency is leaving the UK5It is not really leaving the UK, more accurately it means there is domestic accumulation of Sterling as a consequence of overseas trade.. We have a public-sector deficit, government spends more than it receives and the private sector is in surplus, households and businesses have more income than expenditure. It is important to realise that this is an aggregate surplus across the whole private sector, it is just the wealthy individuals and businesses that run a surplus, while poorer households are running a deficit and accumulating debt.

The austerity measures of the last eight years were intended to reduce public-sector deficits. Reducing public-sector deficits while maintaining an overseas trade deficit reduces private-sector surpluses and puts more of the poorer households and businesses into debt. The wealthy are then able to lend their accumulated wealth to the poor profitably.

Austerity uses a household analogy to justify reducing public-sector deficits, where in reality it increases the debts of the less well-off and the wealthy can the profit by lending. Indeed, it is preferable for the wealthy to profit through lending rather than investing in productive business and enterprise. If the poorer are in debt, they will be reluctant to spend, so aggregate demand is reduced making business investment riskier and less attractive.

Austerity is an exercise in trickle-up economics and the poorer are paying rents (that can be rents on property or money) to the rich. This leads to an accumulation of currency and creates a demand for government bonds or gilts as a low-risk means of saving. This is also referred to as the national debt, which is not really debt, but savings. The high demand for gilts (and so-called high national debt) reduces the returns on them. In an investment-led economy, money invested in gilts would more likely be invested in businesses, because government spending and investment increase aggregate demand and the risk of business investment is reduced.

Neo-liberalism: choice and competition

Neo-liberalism is closely aligned to austerity, it is based on the belief that the free market is the most efficient means of exchanging goods and services and that competition results in lower prices, efficiency and improved productivity. A further characteristic of neo-liberalism is the transfer of public services, utilities, nationalised industry and public transport to the private sector. The first moves toward neo-liberalism in the UK were in the 1970s. In 1976, Denis Healey, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, accepted a loan from the IMF, attached to it were conditions that forced austerity, i.e. reducing public-sector deficits. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 public assets were sold off to individuals and investors, including public housing, utilities and public transport for example. At the same time, there was increased financial liberalisation which facilitated more lending. Outsourcing and private finance expanded through John Major’s premiership and was further extended by Tony Blair during the New Labour government. While it might seem that privatisation reduces the size of the state, the state is still required to fund public services such as health, education, prisons and transport infrastructure Privatisation presents an opportunity for businesses to profit from the provision of public services. Importantly, losses and risk are largely underwritten by the state. The provision of public services by the private sector is an attractive investment: in a period of austerity, with low aggregate demand in the private sector, investing in public service provision with socialised risk, is very attractive.

A further lucrative low-risk investment is the financing of capital projects in the public sector, so-called Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), Public Private Partnerships (PPP) or Private Placements where an institution issues a bond to raise finance.

Privatisation, marketisation, neo-liberalism and austerity are beams of the same sun. They don’t happen without political will and citizen consent; the neo-liberal project has to be lobbied for and promoted. The project has many outriders, think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange, all funded by business and wealthy free marketeeers (sometimes transparently but quite often opaquely), to assemble evidence, create arguments, lobby and advocate, through the media, the benefits to the public of choice, competition and private-sector efficiency and innovation. Of course, this is driven more by a fundamental need for capital accumulation, than it is out of a concern for the provision of quality public services. Though the neo-liberal project attracts its enthusiasts and disciples who espouse the benefits of autonomy, individualism, efficiency and innovation.

Neo-liberalism and austerity have been central to growing economic inequality , in addition, the privatisation of public services has contributed to a growing democratic deficit, a powerlessness over the conditions of the community, where service provision is provided by an unaccountable public service . There is a growing inequality in the access to public services, where the principle of universal provision is replaced by an increasing amount of part or wholly private-paying services.

A perfect neo-liberal storm in higher education

The pension issue in the UK’s higher education sector is a perfect storm in the progress of privatisation and marketisation. There are two aspects. Firstly, poor returns from government bonds (gilts) mean that a low-risk investment of the USS pension fund in bonds give returns lower than the consumer price index. Other types of investment, such as equities, are higher risk because of the low aggregate demand in the economy. This is a consequence of austerity and the attempts by successive governments to manage the economy by balancing the books i.e. by reducing the public-sector deficit. Austerity leads to deflationary conditions with low aggregate demand in the economy and high demand for low-return low-risk government bonds. This makes the USS fund vulnerable to pessimistic valuations and to anxious evaluations of risk.

Secondly, the government continues to pursue an outsourced, privatised and marketized model for public services. This is driven by a capitalist lobby that seeks to maintain and expand a rentier economy. The introduction of student loans, tuition fees and subsequent increases are all part of the commodification and privatisation of higher education. The Higher Education and Research Bill that was hurried through before the general election in 2017 further embeds the consumerization of higher education, with the creation of the Office for Students and providing opportunities to establish challenger institution to increase competition in the sector.

The government claims that the reforms introduced since 2010 have resulted in more disadvantaged young people entering higher education, but the evidence suggests that there is an uneven distribution, with disadvantaged students more likely to take up places in less prestigious institutions6 Further competition and marketisation in higher education will lead to greater inequality, as institutions are forced to compete for the most university-oriented students, generally those from backgrounds with high social, economic or cultural capital.

Higher Education institutions have increasingly adapted to the neo-liberal reforms . This has seen the emergence of ‘New Public Management’ of ‘new managerialism’ as a hierarchical system of control and performativity. The cultural shift is away from democratic governance and collegiate professionalism to executive decision making principally drawing on management accounting and metrics. The disciplining and performative and managerial cultures lead to conformity and undermine academic freedoms except for, say, a few at the pinnacle of elite institutions.


I hope I have demonstrated the connection between the pension dispute, the introduction of student loans, the privatisation and marketisation of higher education and our current national economic policy. For me, as I take part in UCU’s action over the pensions, it is not just about being comfortable in my dotage. I love my job, I love the environment in which I work and I love working with students. There are so many achievements that my institution and the UK higher education sector, as a whole, can be proud of and with which it has led the world. So my motivation is to prevent public education from sleepwalking into becoming a further fragmented and inequitable system. A system that treats students as consumers and undermines scholarly inquisitiveness and the pursuit of ideas, ideas whose inspiration might arise from unusual and unconventional lines of inquiry. The performativity of neo-liberalism fosters a conformity, a narrowness and too often the safe and mundane.

I say we are sleepwalking, because it feels like this here in Cambridge, decision making has become concentrated with a few, no doubt highly-skilled and rational managers. That same rationality appears to have usurped the University’s democratic governance. Of course, it makes sense to reduce the University’s liabilities and exposure to risk to attract private finance, it makes sense to make the University competitive internationally and of course, there is logic in reducing staff pay and conditions to maximise surpluses. But these are rational judgements based on an acceptance that austerity and neo-liberalism are a) necessary and b) the only choice of political economy. It is not the only choice and, as I have argued, austerity is a political choice and not an economic necessity and in accepting it as though it is, we, as a University, make a moral choice. Or worse, we dispense with moral deliberation and accept that growing inequality and a deepening social crisis in society is simply a cost, a risk that can be put into and evaluated in our management analysis. If a university fails to accept its moral mission and fails to engage in genuine democratic moral deliberation over what society should look like, then it has failed as an institution. It may have secured private investment and have good metrics, but, nonetheless, it has failed.

The reason I take action as a member of the UCU is to encourage the higher education sector — and especially the elite institutions — to take responsibility and offer moral leadership. And not to acquiesce to those who look to perpetuate a rentier economy. Universities must offer a robust independent voice based on independent scholarship and promote the same moral purpose and critical thinking in their students.

Finally, I ask: colleagues, students, parents and communities please stand in solidarity with the striking members of the UCU.


Radice, H. (2013). How we got here: UK Higher Education under neoliberalism. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(2), 407–418.
Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. Penguin Books.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Harvey, D. (2011). A brief history of neoliberalism (Reprinted). Oxford Univ. Press.