The University Profit Machine

Today, UCU members return to their work after eight days on strike - but they know that the fight to reclaim education as a public good has only begun.

Yesterday was the final day of the nationwide strike by members of UCU, the University and College Union. Academic, administrative and support staff at sixty institutions walked out last Monday, November 25th, to begin eight working days of continuous strike action, to be followed by a period of “action short of a strike” immediately on our return. 

University staff are not short of reasons to strike. Last year, we walked out over plans to index our pensions to the stock market, removing the “defined benefits” scheme that offered security to members and potentially cutting our incomes in retirement by around £10,000 a year. With that dispute still unresolved, members were balloted again this autumn, and voted overwhelmingly for further industrial action. 

This time around, the dispute is also about our pay, which has declined in real terms by around 20 percent in the last ten years. With the gender pay gap in universities standing at around 15 percent, this phase of strike action is officially about equality, too. But perhaps above all, it’s about the conditions under which we have to work. 

A large proportion of staff are on temporary and insecure contracts, unable to plan more than a few months ahead. An epidemic of overwork is breaking our physical and mental health, our relationships with partners and family. The erosion of our autonomy as educators and researchers, the relentless subordination of our particular expertise to corporate managerial directives, is destroying the features of academic work that made it attractive (or, at least, tolerable) to us in the first place. 

Even the lucky few with ‘permanent’ academic jobs — only nominally so: post-Thatcher, we can be made redundant with relative ease — are left with the feeling of having scrambled aboard a sinking ship. 

Rat Race

With the income of universities now coming almost exclusively from student fees, the lives of academic staff are more and more dominated by the imperative to attract new undergraduates. We sit in sports halls at 8 am on Saturday mornings, attempting to lure teenagers and their parents with special offers: make us your firm choice now and we’ll lower the entry requirements! 

The recruitment drive never stops. Confining it to a circumscribed admissions period would risk our competitors snapping up applicants — and the money they represent — before we get a look in. 

Recruitment has penetrated the classroom. In order to attract new applicants, we must appease the league tables. In order to rise in the rankings, we must keep our existing students “satisfied” — more precisely, we must demonstrate that they are satisfied in the particular ways “measured” by the National Student Survey (NSS). We are summoned to attend endless, interminable meetings where we hear the latest idea from management for improving “student voice”: we must “embed” opportunities for student feedback on the quality of our teaching into the teaching itself, surveying students on their satisfaction levels not only at the end of a course — the normal practice until recently — but also throughout the course. 

We are instructed to mark our students’ work faster and faster, so as to improve our scores for “timeliness” of feedback. Lecturers face ever-increasing pressure to have their classes “captured”: to have our voices and slides recorded using software called, incredibly, Panopto. 

And since students are now paying customers, universities are required to abide by Competition and Market Authority rules, which, as interpreted by university management, require academics to declare what we are going to teach and how we are going to teach it months or even years in advance, lest our customers don’t get the “content” they signed up for. We are then bound to whatever we wrote down to satisfy the deadline — invariably in a rush and while juggling our current teaching (God forbid that we have a thought in the meantime). 

The perverse logic of the market penetrates our research, too. In order to be competitive, we must chase “stars”, awarded (or not) for our “outputs” by panels of academics who rarely have time to read the submissions they judge. 

Work to Live

It has become almost obligatory for academics who strike to say how much we would rather be teaching: how much we love our students, how strike action is a last resort, how it breaks our hearts to have to do it. 

In saying so, we challenge the monopoly on concern or dedication claimed by opponents of strike action: those of our colleagues who choose to cross picket lines — thus actively undermining our attempt to improve conditions for us all — frequently rationalise their actions by saying that they simply care too much about their students to do anything that might harm or disrupt their education, even for a few days. In reply, strikers quite rightly point out that it is partly because we care about our students’ conditions of learning that we are taking action: that staff and students have a shared interest in resisting the processes that are ruining higher education for both parties. 

But we should also be honest. Teaching can come with moments of exhilaration and fulfilment, but we should not pretend that it’s either an unadulterated pleasure or the main purpose of our existence. The problem with the “my students are my life” sentiment, even when not used as a weapon against those trying to mount some resistance to a destructive agenda of marketisation, is that it plays into a way of thinking that we should be trying to get away from: a neoliberal philosophy of “do what you love and love what you do” that requires us to identify ourselves more and more completely with our jobs and to make ourselves available — if not in person then online — anytime, anywhere. 

It’s the same philosophy that demands job applicants say with a straight face that they have always dreamed of a role in customer service, in order to prove themselves deserving of jobs that barely cover the rent. Living to work, as opposed to working in order to live, might be a revolutionary aspiration: in a society configured in a way radically different to any we have known, perhaps our work — in the broadest sense of that term — could be the thing that gave our lives meaning rather than the thing we do to survive. 

But in our current context — one in which the best most of us can reasonably hope for is to find a job we don’t actively hate — living in order to work is a form of pathology. If we really can’t get enough of teaching, why not give up our weekends and evenings too? Oh, wait, we already did. 

Changing the System

A number of us have taken advantage of the timing of the strike to campaign for a change of government in the upcoming general election. Among other reasons, we know that there is little hope of an improvement in our working lives without a radical change of direction at the national level. Even if we win our present demands for better pay and the protection of our pensions, the continued deterioration in our conditions of work is inevitable while a marketised system of higher education — with student fees at its heart — remains in place. 

In one sense, the response of universities to that system has been deeply irrational. Simply treating both staff and students with decency and respect would almost certainly produce better results, even in terms of management criteria — reputation, “student satisfaction”, “retention” and “recruitment” — than throwing vast sums at vanity projects while squeezing staff pay, imposing impossible workloads, cutting support services and hiking student rents. Integrity could be a “unique selling point”. 

But this, by definition, is not a generalisable solution. In a competitive market system, someone always has to be at the bottom of the table. Inevitably, those in control of institutions will look for quick fixes and eye-catching gimmicks in an attempt to game the rankings system. Institutions will do it because other institutions are doing it. 

Meanwhile, new private providers are poised to make further inroads into the education “market”, ready to undercut established universities by offering cheaper and online degrees on the back of a “flexible”, gig-economy-style academic workforce. The irrationality is built into the system — and for those making a fortune from it, it’s not irrational at all. For the rest of us, the only hope is to change the system itself: to restore education as a public good.