The university is a business: interview with a faculty member on strike in the UK

This February and March, members of the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) — which includes professors, researchers, Ph.D. students and professional services staff like librarians and counsellors – are undertaking a 14-day strike. Robert Ovetz, editor of Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Tactics, Strategies, Objectives (forthcoming Pluto 2020), interviewed David Harvie, an associate professor of finance and political economy at the University of Leicester, and communications officer for the University’s UCU chapter, about the strike and its causes.

What is the strike about?

The strike’s about a variety of issues, which are grouped into two disputes.

One dispute involves pensions. There are two pension schemes for the university workers represented by UCU. One is the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The value to members of these schemes has been eroded over the past years in various ways. Another “crisis” was announced in 2017 when the total value of the fund was deemed to be insufficient to meet future commitments, meaning members (i.e. university workers) would have to pay higher contributions from our wages and receive lower benefits in retirement. We challenged this valuation, but strike action has been necessary to force both our employers and USS to concede that the valuation methodology used was inappropriate. The details are quite arcane, but class struggle has taken the form of an argument about the best way that financial assets and liabilities should be valued!

The second dispute concerns pay, equalities, casualization and workloads. Real wages have declined by 20% over the past decade or so. There are various “pay gaps,” including between men and women (at my institution, women are paid 23% less than men on average) and between white and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) workers. On some measures, almost half of university teachers and researchers are on precarious contracts: short-term, hourly, or even extremely precarious, what is called “zero-hours” in the UK. On top of all this, workloads keep rising. So we want a pay rise–3% plus the Retail Price Index or £3,349 (approximately $4,300), whichever is greater–and we want a variety of things on the other fights: 35 hours per week as a basis for contracts, moving hourly-paid staff onto fractional contracts, and bringing outsourced staff back in-house, for instance.

UCU struck for 14 days over the period of a month in February to March 2018. What was the outcome of that strike?

That strike was about USS pensions. The outcome was the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel, with members nominated by both union and employers, which looked at the pension fund, its valuation and so on. It seemed like a victory but the employers’ body, Universities UK and, particularly, the USS Trustees who run the scheme, disregarded the findings of the panel. That’s why we struck for 8 days in November and December 2019 and are now striking for a further 14 days.

In the past six years the UCU has gone from conducting poorly organized and -attended 2-hour strikes to striking for 14 days in February to March 2018, and 8 days during November and December 2019. What is changing about how UCU is organizing strikes? Has it had an impact?

This is a difficult question to answer, as — like the vast majority of members– I feel quite ignorant about the internal workings of the union. I think there are two parts to the answer.

First, UCU’s governing bodies have always been controlled by two factions, the so-called Independent Broad Left, an unholy alliance of Communist-party types and right-wingers in the Labour party, and UCU Left, dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party (SWP) but which also includes activists towards the left of the Labour party. In the past few years, UCU Left members have taken control of more of these structures and have steered the union in a more militant direction by calling longer strikes, for example.

But second, I think the membership has become more militant — and I’m not sure that’s much related to UCU Left winning more seats on the governing bodies or getting more of its motions passed at union congresses. UCU members now include young workers who were involved in the UK’s student movement during 2010, who have brought their experiences of militancy with them. Universities are far more international than they were, and migrant workers also inject new practices of workplace and social movement militancy. Finally, it’s possible there’s a tolerance threshold that we’ve now crossed. Post-2008, life has become harder for almost everyone. In universities and many other sectors, the squeeze on incomes has been coupled with increased stress that comes both with work-intensification and with insecurity. It took a decade, but eventually we reached the “enough is enough” point.

How have the last two strikes, and the upcoming strike, been organized? Did the previous leadership effectively prepare the membership to strike?

This is another difficult question for me to answer. I’ve been involved in various social movements (anti-poll tax, anti-war, anti-fascist, counter-globalization, etc.) all my adult life. But I’m quite new to workplace organizing. Certainly UCU’s leadership, which includes a ten-person campaigns and policy team, send out materials such as posters, flyers, stickers, etc., along with emails to members to help “get out the vote” (GOTV) on the strike ballot and then more materials to prepare for strike action itself. But I’m not sure how effective all this is. One problem is that I’m not sure how it could be done better.

I come from a very bottom-up tradition of political organizing – anarchist, libertarian communist, horizontalist, whatever – that emphasizes self-organization. So, some union practices jar [sic] with me. GOTV campaigns have their parallel in canvassing and “door-knocking” in elections. I’m probably being quite naive, but I find it hard to accept that a union’s membership can be so disengaged that it’s necessary to individually speak to members simply to get them to cast a vote. But I don’t quite know how we make such campaigns unnecessary.

What also jars me are posters that say things like “your pension is under attack” or “your pay has fallen by 20%…” Of course, these posters should say “our pension under attack,” “our pay has fallen by 20%…” I think most of UCU’s senior officials, certainly its Head of Policy and Campaigns and its General Secretary until early 2019, are or were “professional” trade unionists, few of whom had ever worked in tertiary education.

What is your role in the UCU?

For the past few years I’ve been Communications officer of the University of Leicester branch (also called “chapter”) of UCU. I’m responsible for our website [and] branch-level campaign materials, and share some of the social media work. I work closely with the other principal officers (two co-chairs, a vice-chair and two co-secretaries). We go to various meetings with senior managers and receive some “facility time” for this work equivalent to one day a week.

During the 2018 strike the union was criticized for not providing or circulating information to the strikers. In response, The University Worker strike bulletin was self-published during the strike and the settlement vote was published by members of Notes from Below. To what degree has the self-organization of academic workers contributed to the strike organizing and strategy? How did it contribute to the dramatic change in leadership of the union last year?

I think that self-organization was incredibly important. As well as the two examples you mention, the 2018 strikes also saw the creation of the Branch Solidarity Network, which shares locally-produced resources and published The University is Ours, a handbook for branch activists; USS Briefs, which mostly publishes analysis that can inform struggle; a University strikes Facebook group (now with more than 1,200 members; and a UCU rank-and-file email list. There are various other informal communication networks such as Leicester UCU which is in a shared Twitter conversation with several dozen other branches. All of these platforms and networks helped to successfully mobilize opposition to a deal put forward by employers that UCU’s national leadership was supportive of.

USS Briefs is noteworthy because one its founders is Jo Grady. In February 2019, when the much-criticized Sally Hunt resigned as the union’s General Secretary on health grounds, Jo stood against two much better-established candidates (UCU’s Head of Policy and Campaigns and Hunt’s favoured successor, and a prominent figure in one of UCU’s two main factions) and won convincingly on a much-increased turnout.

UCU members on strike in February 2020

In a recent article you co-wrote with Gareth Brown, you identified issues such as adjunctification of the faculty, work intensification, rationalization of academic work with metrics and rankings, casualization of the classroom and campus, and other aspects of entrepreneurialization that have simmered for so long that many academic workers have reached the point that “enough is enough.” Why have these changes to higher education been happening in the UK and how are they being replicated elsewhere?

This question would require a book-length answer which I’m not sure I’m qualified to write. A few scattered thoughts spring to mind, though. One [is that] universities in the UK have long been a frontline of capitalist development. This is the case in the US too, and remember you wrote about the “global entrepreneurialization of the universities” back in 1996, but I think it’s played out differently in the UK.

The first Research Assessment Exercise happened in 1986. Since then it’s swelled to the behemoth known today as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Its stated aims are to make researchers “accountable” to “benchmarks” and provide “reputational yardsticks,” and then to allocate research funding on this basis. This is the means by which they “secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education.” But it’s an incredibly harsh disciplinary device which is used as such by university bosses. It puts pressure on scholars to pursue research projects best suited to the REF. That’s one aspect of the way I suggested in “Alienation, class and enclosure in UK universities” that researchers are becoming alienated because the content of our work is directed by an external power. The associated bureaucracy imposes goodness knows how many additional hours of work, countless “bullshit jobs.” There’s no doubt its strictures have contributed to the “replication crisis” in psychology, medicine and so many other scientific disciplines. In so many ways, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t work, but it imposes work as an instance of what Will Davies called “punitive neoliberalism.” This, of course, is the capitalist mode of production. If it’s “about” anything, it’s not the production of wealth, but rather the maintenance of social control through the imposition of work.

Since 2017 the REF has had a sibling, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This combines surveys of “student satisfaction,” drop-out rates, rates of graduate employment and so on to produce a ranking of gold, silver or bronze which, in turn, feeds into league tables. Again, it doesn’t “work”, but instead imposes work. But the government and other neoliberal ideologues are desperate to create a market in higher education, where universities compete on price and “quality” and where “failing” institutions are permitted to “exit the market,” i.e. go bankrupt. This desire was part of what underpinned Parliament’s decision in December 2010 to triple the cap on tuition fees (to £9000 a year, about $11,700), a decision which sparked many weeks of militant student protest. (Interestingly, these student activists of 2010–11 have helped create a new generation of militants, and played a part in the transformations of both my union UCU and the Labour party.) But a market can only “work” if consumers (i.e. students) know what they are buying. Following the tripling of the fees caps, every university in the UK started charging the maximum for every course it offered. There was perhaps one institution that tried charging a little less, £8000 or £8500 but it saw applications plummet. Because, in the absence of other reliable information, price is a signal of quality in the same way as when you visit an unfamiliar store in search of a bottle of wine to take to a dinner party. That’s why TEF and the league tables are so important to the marketization project. And that’s why university bosses are diverting so many resources into them, quite often seeking to game them by doing all they can to build their institutions as a “brand”. All this comes at immense cost to the people who actually do the teaching and the research and who make teaching and research possible such as librarians, technicians, cleaners, maintenance staff and so on.

One of the many pernicious effects is that vice-chancellors have gamed the REF by moving “underperforming” scholars from what used to be the implicit norm of a “teaching-and-research” contract to a “teaching-dominant” contract. Such scholars don’t have to be included in REF returns, so their “poor” scores don’t bring down the average. Removing research time from them frees them up to do more teaching. As bosses seek to squeeze costs so as to finance their building and branding ambitions another effect is to have more teaching done by casualized staff who don’t have to be paid if student recruitment sinks and don’t have to be paid over vacations. In this use of contingent “adjuncts,” I think the UK might be behind the US, but bosses are doing their best to catch up fast.

In the past few years the independent, IWGB-affiliated unions of non-academic university workers, who are overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants, have been successfully organizing and striking. How are these struggles interconnected with UCU’s?

These movements are really important and exciting. The struggles are interconnected in the sense that the outsourcing of porters, catering staff, security staff, cleaners, etc., is all part of vice-chancellors’ drive to cut costs. This is exactly what they’re doing to teaching and research workers, through similar tactics of casualization. The UCU branch at Goldsmiths, University of London has been really supportive of the IWGB-led campaign to make such outsourced workers direct employees of the university with terms and conditions equal to that of other employees. But this case is a bit of an exception. Most UCU branches haven’t done enough to connect with the struggles of such workers. Actually, UCU has been slow to take seriously the struggles of its own members who are casualized, non-white or migrant. This is now starting to change thanks to initiatives of these workers themselves and their allies.

You and Gareth argue for a different strategy for struggling in the university that includes carrying out a “workers’ inquiry” into who works, with and without wages, in the university and who profits from that labor in order to identify choke points in which leverage can be applied. What more of this needs to be done to inform the tactics, strategies and objectives of your struggle?

There is so much work to be done here. But the university is essentially a business, certainly a university is run like a business. In 2016, for example, financial reporting standards for universities changed so they must now present their accounts in a manner similar to that of profit-making companies. So we need to understand much more both about financial flows and the way a university creates and promotes its brand. Universities also have certain reporting obligations to various government departments, such as the “Office for Students” which was established in 2018, tasked with guaranteeing “quality” and “standards.” Universities also play an important role in policing the UK’s border by being able to assure the Home Office, for instance, that their non-European Union students (and, presumably, fairly soon, all non-British students) are “fully engaged with their studies.” Two of my Leicester UCU comrades wrote a very strong critique [of] our institution’s attendance monitoring system, “Touch Green to be Seen.” So I think we need to find out how our employers might be vulnerable in the above areas.

You both argue for going beyond striking over wages, benefits, and working conditions and developing more “constitutive politics and practices … that shape the university in such a way that it better suits our needs.” Should we hold onto the idea of the university, considering the mythology around the “ivory tower,” for those struggling to get past capitalism? Should we replace the idea of the ivory tower with the university as part of the “commons”?

Certainly we need to transform our idea of the university and its materiality! Quite a few years ago, I tried to think of the ways that commoning and community were already practiced in the university. For me one of the inspirations is the Lucas Aereospace workers who, in 1976, published an alternative plan for their company. The “Lucas Plan” involved both reorganizing the company’s structure and governance and producing socially useful products, not parts for military contracts.

What can we do to get more information about and take actions of solidarity with your struggle?

To follow what’s going on, there’s always the official UCU website, though you get a better idea of the richness and variety of what’s going on by following on Twitter at #UCUStrikesBack. As ever, the best way for education workers in the US or anywhere else to demonstrate solidarity with our struggle is by advancing your own. We are invigorated whenever we hear of workers struggling elsewhere.

Robert Ovetz

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