As December fast approaches, university staff across the country are gearing up for a historic strike against pension cuts and the precarious contracts, casualised employment, and pay inequality that plague the modern higher education sector. But workers at one university, Goldsmiths in London’s New Cross, are already out—and unless the university’s management changes track, they plan to stay out for three weeks.
Earlier in the year, Goldsmiths staff were informed of plans for 52 compulsory redundancies—32 professional services staff, and 20 academics in the English and Creative Writing and History departments. According to the university’s senior management team, this is a recovery plan designed to make up for a deficit caused by unforeseen extra Covid costs and the impact of broader government cuts.
But striking staff are keen to point out that there’s something more nefarious at work, too. Workers have demanded the university ‘open the books’ on an undisclosed financial deal that the Goldsmiths branch of the University and College Union (GUCU) says was made with banking giants Lloyds and Natwest—a deal that reportedly agrees a £7 million loan in exchange for redundancies as a cost-cutting measure. Staff have deemed this deal contemptible, pointing out that banks have no right to dictate their livelihoods. Alongside the potential job losses, the cuts at Goldsmiths could see masters’ courses in Black British History and Queer History axed entirely.
Disregarding the outcry around the deal, university warden Frances Corner has said the financial agreement does not counteract the need for the university to be back ‘on a substantial financial footing’. Since members of GUCU voted overwhelmingly for industrial action at the start of November, leadership statements and spokespeople have been full of calculated concern, citing the effects strike action ‘could have on students on top of impacts from the pandemic’.
But this feeling isn’t mirrored among the student body. Instead, those studying at Goldsmiths are increasingly frustrated with the management attack that has led to this moment.
Clara Hesseler, a student from Germany undertaking an MA in Political Communications, is enraged at the SMT’s poor treatment of lecturers. She describes the frustration she feels when Goldsmiths ‘sells itself to international students as a university that’s diverse in thought and ideas’ but is quick to undermine its workforce of critical thinkers and professors.
‘I’m upset I’m paying all this money to a university that is not willing to secure the jobs of the lecturers that made me apply in the first place,’ she explains. ‘And the fact that they are planning to cut not only jobs but entire courses just shows that they are clearly on a mission to weaken the quality of our studies.’
Her concerns match those of History lecturer Dr Tara Povey, who is herself facing the threat of redundancy. In a statement made in her role as co-president of GUCU, Povey says that the SMT’s tactics ‘are an attack on two distinctive and special departments—departments that established the world’s first MA in Queer History and the UK’s first MA in Black British History and the world’s first MA in Black British Literature.’ She condemns the university’s deal with financial firms, too, saying: ‘Rather than submit to the demands of private banks, management should be working with staff and students to develop a fair, sustainable way to improve College finances.’
A number of students joined the picket line for the opening rally of the strike this week, some holding banners emblazoned with slogans like ‘Lloyds: taking you for a ride’ and ‘Natwest: stealing your tomorrow today’. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell addressed the protesters in a speech that lauded Goldsmiths as an education institute providing learning for the next generation—not, as he pointed out, a corporation.
Notable staff and alumni have also shown solidarity with the strikers. Famous author and professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths Michael Rosen tweeted that the threatened redundancies were a real-life example of culture being ‘cancelled’, and Booker Prize-winning writer and former student Bernardine Evaristo was one of a number of signatories to an open letter calling on Corner to stop ‘the decimation of departments… [and] redundancies within professional services’.
With on-campus teaching shelved for three weeks, a number of staff members are organising teach-outs, providing a platform for students to continue learning without crossing the picket line. They range from reimagining education to organising for the strike, and include assemblies on liberation causes in Palestine and beyond. Students have also been encouraged by their tutors to set up WhatsApp groups and attend student union meetings to converse with their peers on what can be done while protests are taking place, proof that supporting strike action among educators is an education of its own.
The strikes at Goldsmiths come in their own unique circumstances, but they are also a microcosm of the broader effects of brutal marketisation and ongoing senior management disregard for both staff and students, which also contextualises the action planned by UCU members next month. Staff at 58 universities will be fighting back against the destruction of the sector and the attack on academia, pointing out the desperate consequences of this attack for both educators and those they teach alike.
This context makes it clear that the fight against redundancies at Goldsmiths is one part of a broader struggle for the soul of education—and it’s a part that we must back the workers to win.