Higher education is in crisis. This isn’t necessarily new—since the introduction of student fees in 1998 under New Labour, and the ravages of austerity and internal marketisation that followed, the sector has been increasingly compromised—but like so many aspects of public life, its issues have been forced into ever-sharper relief in recent months.
At Goldsmiths, University of London—the New Cross arts and humanities college renowned for its forward-thinking research and academics and alumni like Stuart Hall, Steve McQueen, Mark Fisher, and Sarah Lucas—these issues have boiled over. The institution’s Senior Management Team (SMT) are imposing a dramatic restructuring of the university under the guise of a ‘recovery programme’ – its response to what they describe as an ‘unsustainable’ financial situation which has been compounded by the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this situation is partially symptomatic of wider cuts to higher education funding that go far beyond Goldsmiths – but that’s part of the reason why these proposals, and the industrial action being taken by the staff, are so significant.
Since summer 2020, the College’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has been in dispute with the SMT over the planned restructure, which would have serious implications both for the positions of many of the union’s members and the quality of the education available for Goldsmiths students. The restructure plan, previously titled ‘Evolving Goldsmiths’ and now reframed as the Recovery Plan, includes job cuts amounting to £6 million in wages and a fundamental reorganisation of the university that will severely impact departmental and academic independence. It will also have an immediate effect on the student body, with class sizes and the workloads of academics and support staff both increasing significantly.
The plan is informed by work conducted (at considerable cost) by the financial giant KPMG, but even that firm—hardly an obvious ally in the struggle for workers’ rights in higher education—came to conclusions that do not support the redundancies and reorganisations proposed by the SMT, having deemed Goldsmiths a successful institution and suggested other methods of saving money and raising college income.
Disturbing but sadly unsurprising at this point is the disproportionate effect these plans will have on workers from already-marginalised backgrounds: although the SMT have refused staff calls for a formal equalities review, figures collected by lecturers estimate a disproportionate number of academics who faced losing their jobs were BAME, and a majority were women. Goldsmiths has form on this: its response to students protesting institutional racism in 2019 was openly hostile, and artist Evan Ifekoya withdrew their labour from the college’s art department in 2020 citing racism ‘experienced on an interpersonal, institutional, structural, and economic level‘. Like many neoliberalised institutions, the college has also turned to outsourcing and casualising much of its workforce in recent years, as highlighted by the successful ‘Justice For Cleaners’ campaign which began in 2018 and last summer’s streak of wildcat strikes.
This grim picture is mirrored in universities across the country, from the University of Leicester to the University of East London. To an outsider, it may perhaps be a little surprising that Goldsmiths is not only being subjected to these familiar market pressures, but that its SMT is actively welcoming their influence. This confusion is shared by many students who had been attracted to the radical reputation the university has built up over decades. The recent rent strikes at the college (and across the country)—strikes that SMT ignored for months, despite appalling conditions in the college’s halls of accommodation—are clear evidence of those students’ dissatisfaction.
‘I decided to study at Goldsmiths for its critical culture and progressive politics, and I am very disappointed in how everything has turned out,’ says MA Political Communications student Clara Hesseler. ‘I was looking forward to studying in Goldsmiths’ hugely respected Communications department, but I feel that the management’s treatment of both staff and students is a betrayal of the university’s core values. I can’t believe I’m paying this much money for this management.’
The dispute is happening in the context of wider media and government-level attacks on higher education, particularly in the arts and humanities. The culture war that focuses on familiar right-wing campus folk devils (activist students no-platforming ‘controversial’ figures, radical academics brainwashing impressionable young minds to turn them against ‘British values’) is nothing new, but the tenor of the recent discourse around it has become increasingly hysterical. From Kemi Badenoch’s Commons speech denouncing so-called ‘critical race theory’ (here distorting the original theoretical basis of that term to conjure up a subversive bogeyman that weaponises white guilt to seditious ends) to the confected outrage of self-appointed free-speech champions (who have nothing to say about the material forces that actually pose a threat to academic and public freedom of expression), there’s a disturbingly conspiratorial tone to much of the coverage of these issues.
The timing of the Recovery Plan, then, feels significant. In the current climate, given the above government treatment of the higher education sector and the constant tabloid demonisation of education unions, it would appear that public opinion is less receptive to the working rights of academics than ever. Furthermore, not only are the college staff currently unable to employ traditional industrial tactics—physical picket lines, for example—a year into a pandemic that has already been incredibly disruptive to the student body, many academics are reluctant to inconvenience students any further. This is part of the reason why, as it stands, they’re currently engaged in action short of a strike—in this case, withholding marks and refusing certain non-essential teaching work—rather than a full withdrawal of their labour.
So far, the SMT response has been predictably obstinate. They refused to negotiate at all until external marking staff began to resign in solidarity with GUCU members, forcing them reluctantly back to the table. More vindictively, they’ve also stated that any staff taking industrial action will not be eligible for furlough payments – this just months after having initially refused to furlough casualised staff earlier in the pandemic.
‘The restructure being pushed through at Goldsmiths is the biggest change to the institution since it joined the University of London 30 years ago,’ says GUCU president James Burton. ‘Apart from cutting swathes of jobs, it will undermine academic freedom and rip the radical heart and soul out of the institution, redesigning the curriculum based on flawed and expensive financial reviews, and exacerbating existing inequalities to unprecedented levels.’
Ultimately, this is why student and public solidarity with Goldsmiths staff is so important: if neoliberal management teams and governmental austerity succeed in this dispute, it will set a grave precedent. The Goldsmiths workforce is relatively well-organised and its student body generally more radical and sympathetic to industrial action than many; if such a restructure, resulting in widespread redundancies and the scrapping of many innovative course pathways, is successful here, other institutions may find it even more difficult to resist similar measures.
Of course, this is simply the latest incident in a decades-long struggle against the commodification of education and the marketisation of its institutions – but this is a crucial battle for workers to win if that struggle is to continue.