The Fight for Jobs at Liverpool University

After seeing off a threat of 47 redundancies, staff at Liverpool University are fighting against the last two – and against the neoliberal university system that put them at risk.

Credit: University of Liverpool UCU Branch

The University of Liverpool has been hit by a sustained campaign of industrial action since May this year in opposition to what was originally the threat of 47 compulsory redundancies. There was no financial necessity for these redundancies. Liverpool is a university in rude financial health; its most recent public financial statement from 2020 shows a turnover just short of £585 million – almost £100 million more than Liverpool Football Club for the same period.

Instead, the rationale behind these redundancies was, incredibly, to help address health inequalities and unmet health needs in the Liverpool City Region. Local MPs demonstrated just how offensive these claims are when a number of people placed at risk of redundancy are involved in vital work that seeks to tackle some of the most acute health needs in the local area.

The criteria that was used to place livelihoods at risk is perhaps one of the most despicable attacks on jobs ever seen in a British university. Management at Liverpool have attempted to apply a ‘Rank and Yank’ scheme, whereby an individual’s worth to the university is judged purely on the amount of research grant income they secure. This is a practice more often associated with Amazon or huge financial corporations who seek to annually cull their perceived low performers. In the eyes of management, the quality or importance of an individual’s research or their contribution to teaching is irrelevant if it does not boost the university’s substantial coffers.

To add insult to injury, none of the staff placed at risk of redundancy were ever told they would be judged in this way prior to being told their livelihood was on the line. At a time when UCU members are organising and fighting to eradicate the scourge of casualised employment within the Higher Education sector (over a third of all academic staff at Liverpool are employed on a fixed-term contract), management is seeking to introduce flawed criteria that would make all academics precarious and their employment status contingent on the money they generate.

The response to this brutal attack on jobs has been a courageous and prolonged campaign of industrial action. If counted by the absolute number of days lost to stoppage, the current dispute is probably the longest in the history of UCU.  If counted by the number of employee days lost to strike action, it is potentially the greatest on Merseyside since the Liverpool dockers’ dispute. So far there have been two rounds of strike action as well as a hugely impactful marking and assessment boycott lasting for 23 days. We planned this strategy for maximum leverage, hitting the university during the activities it values the most for its business: the award of degrees and the recruitment of students.

As a result of this campaign of industrial action, we are now in the position where only two people remain at risk of compulsory redundancy. The level of solidarity within the UCU branch toward those at risk is unquestionable, and the most recent round of strike action was taken in defence of the remaining two at risk.

Support for the action has been overwhelming. An incredible amount of money has been raised for the local strike fund, and there have been huge online and in-person rallies and protests, including a visit from Jeremy Corbyn during the most recent strike action.

As ever, the support and solidarity from students has also been inspiring. Students have pressured management from the outset, organised protests, and continued to place the blame for unreturned marks squarely at the door of management, making clear their rejection of the commodification of education. The marketisation of Higher Education has had disastrous consequences for university workers and students alike, and students are all too aware that the working conditions of staff are their learning conditions.

In addition to solidarity from students and the wider movement, mass participation of union members has been instrumental in maintaining solid industrial action over a number of months. Daily online dispute meetings have been held ever since the first day of strike action to give updates and progress on negotiations, and to discuss issues that may have arisen in periods when people are back at work and how we may wish to respond as a union. Most importantly it has provided a space for collective discussions on strategy. Those meetings often had 300 members participating, and during the strike period, never fell below 150.

These daily meetings have also been pivotal in opening the eyes of some union members to the reality of the modern university. Some may have previously laboured under the assumption that well-reasoned arguments which showed how damaging these redundancies are to the university would be enough to save these jobs. This dispute has brought about a realisation that some universities operate as abhorrently as many employers across the country, who know full well that employment law is stacked in their favour. It has highlighted the toxic mix of incompetence and arrogance of managers drunk on power, pursuing vanity projects to further their own careers. The managers who designed this ‘Rank and Yank’ scheme did it only to make enough ‘headroom’ to attempt to build a research centre in their own image. In the modern, marketised, university, senior managers secure promotions when they prove they can restructure regardless of the pain caused to workers.

We exposed this as a vanity project at every stage, shaming our management in front of the national media, the academic press, and the wider trade union movement at every stage in the dispute. The reputational damage caused when this kind of management incompetence and arrogance rises to the surface has been an important step in our long campaign to bring people on board to support the aims of the union, but we always used it as a means of building action. Reputational damage in this sector, like most others, can never act as a substitute for hard hitting, collective direct action.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that this dispute has wide-ranging ramifications for the Higher Education sector. University bosses from other institutions will have been looking on keenly to see if they could attack jobs with little fuss in a similar fashion. Liverpool UCU have shown that this won’t be accepted, and other UCU branches including Sheffield, Goldsmiths, and Chester may be pushing forward similar fights soon to push back against brutal attacks by millionaire management teams wedded to the doomed neoliberal model of higher education.

From an industrial perspective, the Liverpool dispute has shown the importance of a trade union using every weapon in its armoury and at the appropriate time. If UCU is to achieve transformational change in the Higher Education sector that smashes precarity, ends continued attacks on pensions, and brings about the much-needed pay rises and improvement to terms and conditions after a decade of deterioration, we need to be able to organise across our sector to achieve mass participation and target our action when it will hurt our employers the most.

In a statement responding to the announcement of the strike action that took place in August, the University of Liverpool’s Senior Leadership team said:

As a Senior Leadership Team, we remain committed to acting in the best interests of all our staff and students. In terms of next steps, we wish to be clear with colleagues that we fully intend to continue our dialogue with UCU if they are willing […] with the aim of bringing the dispute, in its entirety, to a conclusion.

The full statement is available here.