**Guest Post by Steven Stanley **
Steven is a member of the UCU, has played an active role in the strike and has worked as a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University for the past 15 years. @Dr_SteveStanley
The mass striking of university workers has exposed an academy in crisis. Staff and students are fighting to save pensions and to challenge the corporate ethos of the university. The future of higher education is hanging in the balance. In this article, I will discuss university staff strikes over the proposed changes to pensions, explain my own reasons for striking, explore what I have learnt during the strike, and argue why we need to continue our fight against the idea of the university as a business.
THE STRIKE OVER PENSIONS
The proposed cuts to university pensions (see below for a full background*) reflects a broader context of post-financial crisis ‘austerity’ and is commensurate with poor pay amongst university staff. Since 2009, university staff pay growth has risen by 1%, which in real terms equates to a 17% pay cut. Meanwhile, since the same year, University Vice-Chancellor salaries have risen by 13%, and now average VC salaries are over £250,000 with the highest VC salary being £808,000 (1). To put this into context, the British Prime Minister’s salary is capped at £150,000 per year. The salaries of the executives of the USS pension scheme are even higher. In 2014, the highest paid executive at USS received a 50% pay rise to £900,000. This year, two USS executives earn over £1 million per year (2).
As the evidence of such gross inequalities becomes more widely publicised, university staff, students, and the wider public have responded with justifiable anger. Our employers did not anticipate that university staff would collectively organise and come out on strike with their students standing with them in solidarity. Many of the brightest academics and students in the country are becoming radicalised over what might have previously been thought of as a somewhat boring, and certainly not ‘sexy’, topic – pensions.
University staff and students, along with members of many other trade unions, are angry that a fair pension is increasingly becoming a rarity in this country. The United Kingdom has the world’s second worst overall pension provision; only South Africa has a worse retirement income (3). The UK has very high numbers of pensioners living in poverty, almost 20 percent, which reflects the low state pension, £8,297 per year, which is the fourth lowest in the world (4). The proposed cuts to university pensions mirrors other recent attacks on private and public sector schemes, such as the so-called ‘WASPI’ women born in the 1950s, Carillion, British Home Stores, and British Steel. Such attacks show how poorly we value the elderly in our society.
The fight for fairer pensions is a fight to save current and future generations from poverty in their old age. Striking university staff like myself have been galvanised through the incredible support and solidarity offered to us by workers in other unions, such as the National Union of Students, UNITE, UNISON, Public and Commercial Services (PCS), and the Fire Brigades Union. Members of the wider public have been shocked by the evidence and statistics being made widely known by university staff and students who are using Twitter to engage in a new kind of academic activism. In a sublimely ironic twist, academics who have been pressured to promote themselves, their research and their universities using Twitter are now using social media to expose their employers for allowing an enormously disruptive and entirely avoidable decision which is causing catastrophic long-term damage to UK universities.
It should be said that it takes very special conditions to persuade academics, and academic-related staff, to go on strike. For many university staff, the proposed pension cut is the last straw after decades of neglect and devaluing of their labour. Academics in particular have been very reluctant to go on strike, not least because they deeply regret the disruption to their students’ education. Personally, I was very resistant to go on strike, because after all, I had to cancel my own classes, and decimate modules I have spent a long time crafting. But, when the strike began, I started to look forward to teaching in a different way – especially the kind of non-assessed and non-graded education that can take place within ‘teach-outs’ and more often in ‘teach-ins’ (it was very cold during the strike), which connect people together – in argumentative solidarity – to fight collectively for a just cause.
And, for those students joining us to fight in solidarity, lessons can be learnt through collective struggle, which may transcend the learning possible in lectures and seminars. The over twenty student occupations of university buildings have given me hope that the fight for a fairer future in higher education has not yet been lost. After all, our students represent future generations in which all academics must place their hopes. Not only for the future of higher education itself, but also for the future of the astonishing range of professions requiring higher learning and training. Many PhD and postgraduate students, many of whom hope to pursue academic careers in the future, joined us on picket lines, at rallies, and for teach-outs, and their solidarity has been a crucial source of support during the strike action. Indeed, I think their contribution has been pivotal in securing the wins we have achieved so far.
For those who join in our fight for fairer pensions for university staff, glimpses of alternative futures for higher education become possible. But striking has been no easy feat. Now is a deeply unsettling and upsetting time for all of us who care about education. People are angry and upset. I have veered between feeling heartbroken – it has been the worst of times – and heartened – it has been the best of times. While the conditions of UK higher education have arguably reached an all-time low, my faith in students and educators and the broader value of higher education has been rekindled in the fires of protest.
When academic and academic-related staff go on strike, they go unpaid, withdrawing their labour, which includes withdrawing their production of knowledge, along with the support systems which make higher learning possible. Such action can demonstrate the collective power of a union, especially when educators, students and professional services staff ‘come together, right now’, as The Beatles song goes (one from our picket playlist), to make a collective stand. Enormous energy and levels of creativity have been released, downtrodden and exhausted university workers and their students have been revitalised, and many of us have found new ways to ‘go on’ with the project of co-creating higher education and research, with a renewed faith that not everyone has ‘sold out’ to the idea of the corporate university. I have even been prompted to write and perform an academic rap, ‘Get Your Paws Off Our Pensions’ (5). Things must have gotten very bad for academics to start dancing, singing, and rapping.
THE STRIKE IN A HISTORICAL CONTEXT
This pension strike is the largest and longest industrial dispute in the history of UK higher education. It is as significant as the massive demonstrations against UK government increases tuition fees in 2010. The managers who are now proposing to cut our pensions are the same managers who introduced and keep on raising student tuition fees in England and Wales. Undergraduate tuition fees of £3,000 were first introduced in 1998, by the New Labour government, and were then raised to £9,000 in 2010, by the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition. In 2018, it is the same staff who stood alongside students protesting against tuition fees who are now defending their right to a fair pension, especially for future generations of academics and academic-related staff.
While this dispute is about pensions, it is also about the future of higher education. Colleagues from Western Europe are looking upon the UK university system with a mixture of sadness and horror. Sadness because they once deeply respected British higher education. Horror because they know that the free higher education they take for granted will soon be replaced by a system of tuition fees. They know that the ‘marketisation’ of higher education is heading their way. And they fear the consequences of importing privatised university business models, implemented in the US and UK, to their own countries (6).
Just as they have done with students’ education, our employers want to privatise the pension scheme. This involves shifting the financial risk from collective institutions (Defined Benefit) to placing financial risk onto individual staff members (Defined Contribution) – especially the youngest generation. Employers think that young people want to individually take on the financial risk of pension investments. Rather than being guaranteed a pension on retirement, employers think the youngest staff want to make their own choices about how to invest their wages, flexibly gambling their pension payments on the stock market. It is assumed that these young ones would prefer to be self-sufficient, rather than wanting university institutions and staff members to collectively share the burden of risk. The tragic irony of this position is that it is precisely the youngest members of the USS pension who stand to lose the most, if their ‘DB’ pensions are changed to ‘DC’.
The executives running the USS pension understand pensioners as investors in their own futures. Similarly, Vice Chancellors understand higher education as an economic investment. A business model of universities has become the taken-for-granted reality of UK higher education. The majority of staff and students have internalised the corporate vision of education and, as they work and study, act according to corporate principles (7). Universities are commonly being understood as companies or corporations; Vice Chancellors as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs); staff and educators as service providers and salespeople selling educational products; and students as customers, consumers, and clients – buying their education like they would any other consumer product. The idea that the student is primarily a consumer, which is now part of our shared common sense, was officially instantiated in UK higher education policy in 2005 with the introduction of the National Student Survey (NSS). The NSS is basically a customer satisfaction survey, the results of which feed into national University league tables. The newly developing Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) involves extending this spirit of evaluating teaching and learning from a consumerist vantage point. The basic question about university from a consumer point of view is whether you are satisfied with the educational product you have purchased. Is the product value for money? One Vice Chancellor has compared a university to a gym – a student pays for their education like they pay for gym membership. It is up to the individual student whether they take advantage of the ‘learning opportunities’ made available.
This commercialised ethos of higher education originates in the 1980s and has developed during the past 40 years, and has been intensified in an especially pronounced way within the past 10 years, since the 2008 financial crisis. The rise of the corporate university has gone hand-in-hand with a gradual corrosion of basic human values of dignity and respect between students and staff. Education, particularly undergraduate education, is increasingly understood as an economic exchange, rather than as involving a reciprocity of human relations. In the 15 years I have been a lecturer, I have noticed the presence (and absence) of ordinary human practices of gratitude and thanksgiving in the academy. Students do not routinely clap at the end of a lecture, as academics would for colleagues at the end of a conference paper or presentation, and I often feel that ordinary human relations of reciprocity have been replaced with a market logic of economic exchange. In ‘delivering’ a lecture, I have done my job in ‘delivering’ a service, providing students with a product which they will pay for, at some distant future occasion (if, or when, they reach a particular salary threshold). The ordinary human relationships involved in teaching and learning seem to be compromised when students and staff alike internalise the corporate ethos of the university as a business. I have come to feel eager, sometimes, to be thanked by students at the end of classes. But, more often, I will instead thank my students for attending my lecture and listening to me.
The idea of the student as consumer, in which students have the power to ‘buy’ their education, make choices, and seek ‘student satisfaction’ challenges traditional academic hierarchies and authority relations. The shift from an ‘elite’ to ‘mass’ higher education, characterised by the mass expansion of student numbers since the 1970s, has been accompanied by a simultaneous rise in the democratising of education and extended authority of the power of the student as a consumer. Yet this consumerist ethos, which has accompanied the rapid expansion of UK higher education, might also contain the seeds of its own demise. We are currently witnessing the potential implosion of commodified education within the present industrial action over pensions. Thousands of students are demanding their money back, or withholding payment of tuition fees, in response to losing lectures and seminars cancelled due to the strike.
The pensions dispute is the latest in a series of ongoing crises besetting UK higher education. University staff and students are buckling under the pressure of working and studying within corporate university systems. The pressures upon students and staff alike are increasing in number and severity each year. The list of challenges is long and ever growing:
Rising tuition fees. Escalating student debt – estimated to be around £50,000 post graduation. The creation of a precarious and casualised workforce. Increasing class sizes and decreasing ‘staff: student ratios’. Intensifying competition – for students, grades, grants, and jobs. Obsession with measurement, rankings, and metrics – including specific pressures to be ‘excellent’ and ‘world leading’. Ever changing goal posts and invasive measures of ‘performance’. Increasing sophistication and automation of auditing, surveillance, and technological change. Burgeoning social and economic inequalities along lines of gender, class, race, and age. Shifting of power, income, and wealth to a managerial elite alongside weakening of departmental committees and academic freedom. Exclusive ‘University’ committees characterised by unaccountable and irresponsible decision-making. Inflated VC salaries and excessive expenses sitting alongside stagnating wages and mass job losses. Faced with these, and other, crises, it is difficult to interpret the current situation of UK higher education as anything other than dystopic.
The corporate culture of university life is perhaps best exemplified in the endemic competition which characterises the sector. Universities compete with each other for students. Academics compete with each other for grants. And students compete with each other for grades and jobs. The flags hanging from the building where I work celebrate that Cardiff University is ‘Top 10 UK’ and ‘World Top 100’. But the pensions dispute has revealed the problems University management have with valuing the university workers who, in the end, keep the system going and contribute to making it so ‘successful’ – the teachers, researchers, Lecturers, Senior Lecturers, Readers, Professors, Professional Services & Support staff, technicians, administrators, librarians, and archivists. It seems much easier for employers to value and invest large sums of money in an abstract student experience’ – which is increasingly being understood by staff and students as being a coded expression meaning ‘investing in expensive building projects’. But, as the strike slogan goes, ‘buildings don’t teach, people do’. It has never been more pressing to examine ‘who, what and how’ we value and care about during these fraught times in universities.
It is no wonder, given the shocking state and unjust working and studying conditions of the British university system, that there are worsening levels of mental health amongst students and staff, including rising numbers of suicide (8). The Universities UK group, who represent the interests of University employers, announced their commitment to protect the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff during their annual ‘University Wellbeing Week’ and recent ‘University Mental Health Awareness Day’, which was surprisingly announced in the middle of the strike action over pensions. Thousands of students and staff used the unmistakably institutionalised Twitter hashtag #UniversityMentalHealthAwarenessDay to publically announce how terrible they were feeling and what they were individually doing to take care of themselves. They studiously avoided mentioning the fact that staff in 68 universities were striking to save their pensions. Meanwhile, striking staff and supporting students were incredulous. They could not believe the hypocrisy and insensitivity of UUK, who profess to care about student and staff wellbeing, whilst simultaneously presiding over hikes in tuition fees and cuts in university staff pay.
The tragic irony of UUK’s apparent concern to address my ‘wellbeing’ were personally brought home to me in the midst of the strike action. After five days of withdrawing my labour, I returned to work for two days of ‘Action Short of a Strike’ (ASOS) which basically involves ‘working to contract’, or simply – getting paid to do my job. (This is how academics used to strike, alongside ‘2 hour strikes’, before they discovered how to strike properly). Arriving at work at 9am, I spent some time polishing the lecture I was due to give at 10 o’clock. Just before the hour, an announcement was sent around that the University would be closing due to ‘code red’ snow conditions. I decided that I would try to go ahead and give my lecture anyway in the midst of the snowstorm (it seemed appropriate given the circumstances) and so started to make my way to the venue. Just as I thought my day could not get any better, on my way out of the building, I checked my pigeon hole and found a parcel I had been expecting.
It felt like Christmas. I had asked to be sent the freebies given out during the ‘University Wellbeing Week’ from a few weeks earlier, which I had missed due to having a nasty flu. The envelope in my pigeon hole contained a mindfulness colouring book, a pack of crayons, and a University ‘KPI’ wellbeing mug. The basic idea of the mug is that I should take regular breaks, have a cup of tea, and hold the hot mug in my hands while the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of Cardiff University’s Way Forward strategy are gradually revealed to me – the hot water turns the black mug into a colourful display of KPIs. (This is a real object and not a figment of my imagination).
My personal favourite KPI is that the staff survey results should show that ‘71%’ of staff think the University is a ‘great place to work’. I became momentarily fascinated with the specificity of the number. 71. Not 70 percent, or 72 percent, but 71 percent. As I drank from the mug, I wondered how many breaks it would take for me to fully internalise the University KPIs and motivate me to aspire to achieve them.
It became apparent to me in this moment that working in universities is increasingly coming to feel like working in a real life sitcom. You do not even need to make up the comedy any more. It is as if the comedy, and the tragedy, of academic life is embedded in the very objects and rituals of university life, which simultaneously embody the values of corporate management. Did the person who came up with the idea of the KPI mug seriously believe in it? I thought that the inventor was either a genius or insane or some marvellous combination of both. When I brought my KPI mug to the picket line, my colleagues could hardly believe that this object actually existed. They were simultaneously horrified and looked shocked in disbelief.
None of the corporate values which have become so visible during the strike are new to me. I had completed a lengthy ‘Leading Teaching Teams’ training course which, rather than teaching us how to lead teaching teams, basically aimed to turn academic staff into corporate managers who will voluntarily disseminate University policy into academic Colleges and Schools, with the help of psychometric measurement tools designed to evaluate our leadership styles. Much of the strike has subsequently involved making fun of the patronising and often ridiculous initiatives invented by University management to convince staff and students that everything will be ‘okay’, or even better, that everything is gradually improving all the time, as long as we emulate corporate business practices.
In the situation comedy that is working and studying within ‘HEIs’, most of us staff and students are treated like children, who need to be taught how to best manage and look after themselves. We can, in turn, use humour to ridicule the powers-that-be, and this is a key tool in our fight for different ways of working and studying in universities. But, in a serious sense, we cannot maturely think about our mental health (or otherwise) without simultaneously thinking about what is happening to us – cuts, debts, competition, inequalities – and what we are doing to each other as we attempt to live our lives within unliveable situations. Neglecting to mention the social and economic situations in which we are living means denying the basic contexts which give rise to our feelings of ‘wellbeing’ in the first place.
University managers’ responses to the current pensions crisis reflect a commercial spirit and ethos. Our employers want students (and non-striking staff) to ‘keep calm and carry on’, in proper British tradition, during this unprecedented period of disruptive action. Keep your heads down, stay quiet, and carry on, as if nothing is happening. Ideally, be ‘mindful’. But staff and students are increasingly realising the somewhat Orwellian qualities of the discourse used by university managers. It is worth paying close and critical attention to the language that is being routinely used within our neoliberal universities and particularly during the context of strike action, especially when employers and union representatives become enrolled in (social) media wars.
Our employers say they care deeply about ‘the student experience’, which all too often appears to mean that they are making massive investments in new building projects (‘capital expenditure’), gambling extremely large sums of money on the stock market, and charging exorbitant rental fees for student accommodation. Managers say they want to avoid or minimise the disruption on students caused by strike action, that they are protecting students’ interests, so that the ‘learning outcomes’ of modules and degree schemes can be satisfied. Our employers seem to be working very hard to give the impression that students’ studies have not been disrupted to such an extent to warrant compensation – whether financial or academic.
Meanwhile, ‘The University’ seems to refer to some place ‘over there’. ‘The University’ comprises the managers who really care about ‘our’ students. ‘The University’ is not ‘us’ – teaching and support staff and students. ‘The University’ is rather somehow radically different and other than ‘us’ – separate and distinct from our activities. At a Student’s Union-organised Question and Answer session about the strike, two Pro-Vice Chancellors were introduced as representatives of ‘The University’, whilst two striking lecturers were described as representatives of the UCU (University and College Union). The Twitter hashtag #wearetheuniversity has been a rallying cry to those of ‘us’ who want to critically question such assumptions. We have been asking questions such as ‘where is ‘The University’ and who represents its best interests’?
And the Westminster government’s ‘Office for Students’ (OfS) could not have been titled in a more Orwellian way. The board of this new ‘independent regulator’ of English Universities consists of only one student. For a while, the OfS comprised no student representative, but instead representatives from business and industry, tasked with the job of ensuring higher education in England provides the best ‘value for money’.
The introduction and raising of tuition fees, along with the accompanying idea that students are simply customers seeking the best ‘value for money’ from their courses, has meant that university lecturing staff and students have been pitted against each other, in an increasingly hostile and brutalising corporate environment. Casualised and precarious staff, especially postgraduate research students, Graduate Teaching Assistants (‘GTAs’) and part-time teaching and lecturing staff feel this violence most acutely. Critics have variously called the environment of UK higher education ‘academic capitalism’, the ‘neoliberal university’, or the ‘corporate university’. The large majority of us suffer from this brutal corporate environment, whether we are aware of the causes of our collective misery or not.
The strike is exposing how the UK university system, through being marketised, is being pushed to its breaking point. The pensions strike has publicised worldwide, and to the embarrassment of University Vice Chancellors, the all-too-often ‘hidden’ injuries of academic capitalism, as discussed by Ros Gill, and the toll they take on university workers and students alike (9). When viewed from outside, British universities are looked upon as canaries in a coalmine, or guinea pigs in a massive experiment. The question is to what extent can education, educators, and students be turned into commodities – to be bought and sold in the educational marketplace? The strike has demonstrated in a very public way the fundamental limitations and problems of the ‘business model’ of the university system – its injustices, inequalities and contradictions. The strike has exposed a reality that, when widely publicised, will be deeply embarrassing to those University Vice-Chancellors who model themselves on being Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), responsible for the ‘world-leading’ reputations of their globalised institutions. Will the pensions dispute be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the corporate university?
The strike has prompted many staff and students to together engage in the explicit project of revisioning and re-imagining, or at least glimpsing, possible alternative futures for higher learning. Many strikers and their supporting students are critical of the idea of the university as a business, and instead understand higher education as a public good and public service – a basic right that all people should have equal access to, not just the elite few. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, higher education is understood as demanding critical thinking and asking difficult questions about the world in which we are living. This includes the world of higher education, which itself is part of ‘real life’, despite what people in our anti-intellectual culture may commonly say.
Universities are like a microcosm of the wider society and embody many of its inequalities, contradictions, paradoxes, and hypocrisies. Universities themselves often fall short of the standards set by their own critical academic research, scholarship, and teaching. But this is not a reason to give up on the idea of a university education as a public good. If we want higher education to have a future in the UK, we must challenge the elite privatisation of universities, and find new ways of valuing higher learning, educators and students alike – along with those who support and facilitate teaching and learning – in a more just, democratic, and caring way.
The strike exposes and puts into sharp relief what and how we value when it comes to higher education. The strike may also prompt us to critically reflect on what have become our taken-for-granted cultures of competition and how we might start to cultivate cultures of greater care and equality within the academy. We urgently need to talk together about these themes and about the university and its future.
(Photo: Steven performing his pensions rap)
(*) I have worked as a university lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University for the past 15 years. I am a 40 year old married man. When I retire in the year 2046, aged 68, I am due to receive a pension of £21,000. If the changes proposed to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension go ahead, my pension will be cut to £9,000. This is equivalent to a 60% wage cut, because a pension is deferred wages. We pay into our pension pots every month to guarantee us a livelihood in old age. USS is the largest private pension fund in the UK, with over 60 billion in the pot, £2.1 billion paid into the scheme each year, and £1.8 billion paid out. Despite the healthy status of the scheme, USS executives claim the scheme is in deficit. But this is no straightforward ‘deficit’. The size of the deficit shifts dramatically in size depending upon the valuation methodology employed. In September 2017, the fund was reported as showing a deficit of £5.1 billion. Two months later, in November, the deficit was estimated to be £7.5 billion. Universities UK (UUK), the group of employers claiming to represent ‘the voice of Universities’, are attempting to push through changes to our pensions which have been shown to be deeply problematic. Their proposal to change the USS pension from a ‘Defined Benefit’ to a ‘Defined Contribution’ scheme has been strongly criticised by leading experts for containing problematic assumptions. The employer’s original proposal predicted a 4.4% yearly pay rise for university staff, that staff will die quickly, and that the pension scheme should be ‘self-sufficient’, in the event that universities (like companies) might ‘all-go-bust’ tomorrow. Experts have claimed that the USS has a ‘phantom deficit’ because the valuation of the scheme is based on a problematic way of modelling and predicting the future.
We are fighting to defend our right for a fair pension, and protect us from pension poverty, by demanding our employers protect our current pension scheme and conduct an independent, academically robust, and transparent examination of the pension scheme, its valuation methodology, and underpinning assumptions.
(2) https://www.ft.com/content/623683fc-ae16-11e4-919e-00144feab7de ; https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/university-pension-chief-got-pay-rise-despite-6bn-deficit-f0hn6fbg9