Why university staff are right to strike

Marketisation threatens the very purpose of our universities.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics UK

The University and College Union (UCU) launched a nationwide strike at 57 universities last week. Ending on 4 December, the strike covers two disputes between the union and university management: one concerning pay and conditions, the other pensions. Despite restrictive anti-union legislation passed by the Conservatives in 2016, strike action was backed by 79 per cent of voters in the pensions ballot and 74 per cent in the pay-and-conditions ballot.

This most recent strike comes off the back of the Great University Strike of 2018 – the largest ever in the higher-education sector – which saw a nationwide wave of strikes across 14 days successfully fend off an existential threat to a university pension scheme (the USS). That the pensions dispute has metamorphosed into wider industrial action shows just how much UK universities are mired in various difficulties, all of which tend to reinforce and compound each other.

In addition to the campus culture wars and the free-speech crisis, the marketisation is corroding the governance structures and traditional functions of British universities. Universities are increasingly run by a small and extractive elite who think of themselves as managers rather than senior academics, commissioning external consultants and paying themselves salaries akin to business chiefs. They control their own recruitment, appointment and remuneration processes, rather than being elected from within the university body. Having long since renounced either teaching or research, they only enter lecture theatres or seminar rooms for cocktail parties. They circulate horizontally across different institutions rather than being vertically integrated and embedded into their institutions, ruling their organisations through constant bureaucratic churn and turmoil rather than trying to conserve institutions and education. The refrains of university management are the same as the moronic buzzwords of management consultancy, stressing the need to be ‘nimble’, ‘agile’ and ‘adaptive’.

There are few sectors that better illustrate the absurd logic of postmodern neoliberalism than the university sector: the more that universities are marketised, the more bureaucratic they become. The more that universities seek to treat education as a consumer good, the more they need bureaucratic structures to regulate and oversee the functioning of an effective competitive system. To paraphrase Stanford political economist Steven Vogel: more markets, more rules. Efforts to artificially construct markets in unsuitable environments have generated sprawling structures of bureaucratic control and oversight that have tended to empower management at the expense of academics. They also patronise students by treating them as consumers paying for a standardised service. Small wonder that grade inflation is rampant across the sector. Paradoxically, the higher fees go, the lower the actual ‘value’ of a degree.

Although the bureaucratic sprawl is invisible from the outside, the absurd endpoint of this system is visible in university towns up and down the land, which are choked up with cranes and building sites with all the hallmarks of a property bubble. While university managers screw down wages and working conditions for the staff that work and teach at their institutions, they compete to attract students by building fancy new gyms and ensuite accommodation, as if students are attending a holiday resort rather than a place of learning. The growth of snazzy corporate-style buildings across university campuses – buildings better suited for businesses rather than research and teaching – is in inverse proportion to staff pay and working conditions.

The many problems of higher education not only undermine the value of education, but also threaten the ability of the academic profession to reproduce itself: teaching is increasingly delivered by a casualised workforce of over-worked, poorly paid post-graduate students who struggle with overwhelming workloads while also seeking to complete their doctorates and secure permanent professional positions.

This is the context for the university strike of 2019. Universities are locked in a downward spiral that needs to be arrested and reversed if they are to continue as sites of learning and research.

Philip Cunliffe is senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and is vice president of his UCU branch. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Picture by: YouTube.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Neil McCaughan

3rd December 2019 at 6:51 pm

University staff are unlikely to garner much public support. Many are extremely undistinguished, and huge numbers involved in the teaching of bogus disciplines that have no place at all in university. A drastic cull is indicated.

John Reed

3rd December 2019 at 6:37 pm

Wow…a Spiked article I agree with.

Neil John

3rd December 2019 at 5:35 pm

Working in the University sector, hard sciences and research, I was presented with an ultimatum some years ago over my pension when I got an upgrade from dogsbody to a ‘stick a broom up me arse and I’ll sweep as I go too’ ac-rel grade, to basically dump 8 years of ‘local’ scheme value into USS for 18 months of USS value. Being aware of pensions law I refused and stayed in the ‘local’ scheme, as the USS/University ‘agreement’ was not legally enforceable on employee’s. USS, like so many schemes relied on investment’s which after the 2008 collapse haven’t kept up with outgoings, longer lives cost as well. The ‘local’ scheme was OK until the University took a legally enforced contribution ‘holiday’ as it’s investment income was too high, which like so many Universities the management pissed away on vanity projects. Now that scheme has a shortfall, but unlike USS is secured against the Universities property portfolio. The Universities answer, stop taking new members and try to sell off the scheme to American pensions investors for a huge chunk of cash, and I suspect a few brown envelope thank you’s for the ‘professional management’ team. Thus far OUR fight has prevented the worst from happening, but the UCU have refused to support us, saying our non-academic scheme is unfair as our actuarial deductions etc mean we get pro-rata a better pension than the academics, the same when we struck for better pay, the UCU didn’t want to know. Much though I would like to retire at 65, like many I won’t be able to do so, yet when I look to my Canadian friends, both inside academia and outside, retiring at 50-55 I can’t help wondering if I’ll ever actually draw a pension. Of course the big winners are the Universities, as the local pensions are paid, in the main, from contribution investment income, once all liability has been paid off, the pensioners are all dead, the initial monies and residual investment income are sheer profit, including the pensioners share of the contributions. USS however won’t be able to refuse new member’s, unlike the ‘local’ schemes, or will they?

Jim Lawrie

3rd December 2019 at 2:32 pm

I cannot see anything to defend in academia. They look down on us except when they want our money or support. They remind me of the aristocracy of the working class – the miners. Their union men are living well on fat pensions paid for by the membership.
Academia is stuffed with PC mediocrities. The sooner it collapses the better. Then they can, as Jordan Peterson told their friends in the media who were whining about disappearing jobs and salary cuts, go learn to code.
My only contact with my former University is begging letters for causes, people and trusts that I would not spit on, because they reflect academia’s contempt for the indigenous working class.

Michael Lynch

3rd December 2019 at 9:03 pm

Well said, Jim.

christopher barnard

3rd December 2019 at 1:06 pm

HE has been a huge job creation scheme over the last few decades. Most staff are lucky to have jobs at all as they teach undemanding courses to students of average ability. It is unrealistic for these people to expect the relatively good pay, terms and conditions which prevailed when our universities catered for only the brightest few and a job as a university lecturer was much harder to get. It’ll never happen.

James Knight

3rd December 2019 at 12:16 pm

The unions claimed the pension scheme was sustainable and that the issue is being exaggerated by management. The projected deficit is down to accounting methods and assumptions made. If that is the case then there should be no need for the rest of us to bail it out. They are quite entitled to take that gamble, just don’t come crying to the rest of us for cash if you are wrong.

As for the strike over pay I didn’t see a case for that made here. I saw a case about marketisation and turning education into a consumer product. I agree with that, but the issue is universities operate in a distorted and rigged market supported by future debts of students which quite likely the rest of us will end up bailing out. Those with security of tenure operate in a gilded cage compared to many others. Considering all that, the pay of Vice Chancellors looks grotesque.

Claire Thomas

3rd December 2019 at 10:51 am

There is an irony in the generally left-leaning humanities lecturers now trapped in the most Neo-liberal of organisations – the modern university. The modern campus with its Starbucks and chill out rooms complete with games consoles treats students as if they are on a three year ‘experience’. Management portray themselves as on the side of the student against the lecturer whilst driving down the wages and conditions of the ‘front line’ staff the lecturer. Universities lead the way in casualisation with the hourly paid contract. Many classes are taught by hourly paid lecturers earring about £1,500 for delivering an entire module. Students only get three modules a semester so one student’s fees alone could pay for an entire year’s worth of teaching for a cohort. So where does all the money go – on the new thing buildings and an ever expanding network of back room staff who themselves are paid as little as possible. The people making the real money are the very senior management and the builders. Other teaching staff are luckier to have ongoing contracts but these are increasingly part-time and anyone past 50 is increasingly viewed as an expense rather than an asset. Can this go on forever? No universities have borrowed up to the max and the vice chancellors who think they are on par with city folk are innocents abroad when it comes to money matters. Labour’s free fees will not solve the problem either the whole sector need root and branch reform.

Jim Lawrie

3rd December 2019 at 5:04 pm

Many engineering and computing courses are delivered by computer. Banks of them, with ne’ery a lecturer in sight.

The massive expansion in law degrees, with up to 300 recipients in one big theatre, staffed by a solitary lecturer, means huge profits. Well paid senior staff meanwhile sit on all manner of tribunal and enquiry, instead of delivering tuition and seminars, which are minimal. That is why universities are clamouring to set up Law Schools.
It explains why Strathclyde Law School, which 40 year ago had 200 students, one professor, 7 lecturers and a couple of support staff, now boasts 9 professors, 31 lecturers and 21 assorted others. Plus a steady supply of visiting grandees. Accommodating that lot with parking spaces is a juicy contract for the builders. Not to mention the massive increase in student numbers, which they don’t seem keen to publicise.

John Reed

3rd December 2019 at 6:40 pm

There is more to learning the money. People like you know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Jim Lawrie

4th December 2019 at 9:42 am

John Reed your reply does not relate to my post in any way.

I mentioned profits and how they are being spent, not money. Money is what our hapless youngsters have to hand over. My post was to show how the universities are cynically raking it in and their spending priorities, teaching being low on the list. It was in response to a post in the same vein. Thousands of our youngsters now study abroad because they cannot afford to do so here. When the fees cap is lifted, few of them will be at our universities, except maybe as bellhops and skivvies.

As for your “people like you” slur, I have heard that many times. I graduated 6 months shy of my 20th birthday. 3yrs later I had, on my own, achieved fluency in 3 languages and learned to programme to a professional standard. The languages for the love of it and the sense of achievement, the IT for the money. I was laughed at for learning Greek as it was a “useless language”. Particularly by stuck up, middle class lefties.

Perhaps money has never been a problem for you, and that is why you look down on those for whom it has been or is. Is that why you react with insult against someone who points out the condescending class nature of education? What are you defending? The system? Your class interests?

Mike Stallard

3rd December 2019 at 7:17 am

My old College – Pembroke Cambridge – now has the old court devoted to bureaucracy where once it was full of scholars. The mastership is a straight political reward where once it was Tony Camps, the world renowned Homer expert. It is also huge and it sprawls over the neighbouring street. Whenever it contacts me it is to beg for money where once it used to be polite invitations to the Founder’s Feast. Not impressed. It is a huge business as you so rightly say and not a place where quiet scholarship was once the aim of the ancient institution.

Nick Boorman

3rd December 2019 at 6:01 am

The University Staff Pension Scheme is not a public pension scheme. Its a private Defined Benefit Scheme based on the earning of its investments and continuing contributions from its members.. Unfortunately it doesn’t earn enough from its investments to fund the over promised pensions.
Its part of the growing pile of pension schemes in the UK that don’t have the funds to pay these pensions.
If the fund is hoping the Government will step in and make good the shortfall they may be in for a rude shock!

Jim Lawrie

3rd December 2019 at 2:56 pm

Academia do not see themselves as ordinary workers but do think ordinary workers should pay their pensions. They also do not see themselves as others see them.
For all their economic prowess, they choose not to mention that in work benefits paid in the last ten years are equal to the increase in the national debt. Or that the money markets are slowly increasing the rate that The UK has to pay to fund that debt. A rise of 0.35 percent in a year may not seem much, but it amounts to a £6.5bn per year rise in interest payments.
The game is up.

David Webb

3rd December 2019 at 3:11 am

No, no, no. These are public sector functionaries whose job is now to preach Cultural Marxist propaganda trying to protect inflated pensions. The universities long abandoned the pursuit of knowledge and academic discussion in favour of hysterical leftist dogma. None of these lecturers deserve a public pension.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.