Emily Luise Hart – The UK University Strikes and the marketisation of Higher Education: The state of play and why we must fight on with hope

The UK University Strike was ended – more likely deferred – following a vote by union members at the end of last week. This decision was difficult and the offer had been rejected by a large number of union members. In her article Emily Hart sums up this phenomenal strike, its most important issues, and the influence it has had upon British society.

Emily Luise Hart is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Liverpool, an anti prison campaigner for Community Action on Prison Expansion and a UCU activist.


The industrial action called by the University and College Union (UCU) in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions dispute was suspended on Friday 13th after members voted to accept the employers latest ‘offer’. This follows a wave of strike action unlike anything Higher Education has ever seen and unprecedented solidarity between staff and students.

This decision was in my view, a mistake and a missed opportunity not only to build on the momentum gained by a new and energised membership but also the chance to continue the front-line battle against the wider marketisation of higher education more generally. The USS strikes quickly became more then just about pensions, it fed into and enlivened a growing disquiet among both staff and students that we want our Universities back. This enthusiasm for wider change was also seen last Friday with the resignation of Peter Horrock’s at The Open University following a staff revolt sparked in part by his appalling comments on the supposed lack of teaching undertaken by OU staff.

There can be no doubt that Higher Education is now a marketised industry, one that worships at the altar of the neoliberal capitalist cathedral and is bound to the doctrines of competition, income generation, consumer and customer satisfaction, partnership working, targets and efficiency.

Institutions are no longer run by people who care about the future of students, the furthering of knowledge or the advancement of learning for the benefit of students, scholars and wider society. They are instead run by individuals who inhabit a world the likes of us can only imagine- one of chauffer driven cars, first class flights, 5 star hotels in the global cities of the world and eyewatering salaries that amount to more in one year than they would have me receive for the entirety of my retirement. People who will end their career with a knighthood, a peerage and of course, a decent pension!

Who is beneath these University Vice Chancellors and Senior managers? Here lie the hench people, the faithful followers and supporters of those at the top. These are the people who have been scared into thinking that this is the only way, that the future of the University is based on neoliberal ideals and that making efficiency savings is essential to our ‘consumers’ in the climate of student fees. Their individualistic views and actions are masked by claims that it is their duty to make sure students get the best service. These are the people who have (wilfully) forgotten that giving students the best education possible is what lies at the heart of everything an educator does. Instead academics are to be tightly managed, made more efficient, streamlined and evaluated. Placed in boxes, categories and housed in offices- kept separate from each other and pitched against one another. These hench people are the ones who swallowed the idea that students should and could contribute financially to their own education- that the line pushed by New Labour was based on fairness. That this was part of New Labour, New Britain. Or worse it is those who believed Nick Clegg and the coalitions promise that this was ‘change that works for you’ or Cameron’s assertions that we were ‘all in this together’.

So, what about the academics and teachers? People who started their careers in education for the greater good- not for a medal, a reward or even a thanks, certainly not for the money, but because they quietly believed in the power of education to create change, to open minds, to do good. To make the world a better place. Is this what we do though? Yes, we teach, yes, sometimes we even research. Most of the time we are forced/scared /at times bullied into playing this game of REF (Research Excellence Framework is an Impact evaluation; assessing the research of British higher education institutions), TEF (a government initiative purportedly created to recognise and reward high-quality teaching in higher education in England), point scoring, greasy pole climbing, evaluations and assessments, observations and targets, outputs, impact… The list is seemingly endless. We are rated on our teaching by metrics that don’t examine teaching, rated in our research by how much income it has generated for the University and is read assessed and judged too often by people who know nothing of our field. If we don’t get enough ‘stars’ our jobs are threatened and our contracts changed. Our lectures and intellectual property are recorded and copyrighted and owned by our employer, our community engagement or activist work is even turned into a measurable commodity and impact statements. Our worth is quantified and turned into a series of numbers and we are always found lacking. At the University of Liverpool a massive 220 members of staff are apparently lacking and now being offered voluntary severance.

Students are treated no better. Charged a fortune, plunged into a life of debt, labelled as consumers, pitched against their lecturers rather than working collaboratively with them. An after graduation? Limited jobs, no affordable housing, pensions long gone, a life on fixed term/precarious contracts and living with their parents. As Paul Mason said this generation have become- “the graduate without a future”.

It all seems overwhelming at times. How can we build on the USS strikes and organise for a better future for our education system? We must see that there is hope and value in what we do. What our degrees, teaching and research does provide is critical thinking and the ability to see things for how they really are- it provides the ability to make the connections between the neoliberal agenda and the state that we are in. To see that this is not OK. There is hope in seeing how critical thinking and its application to social justice can be a force for change and good. The evidence for this is everywhere: in the student support and solidarity over the recent industrial action, in the campaigns that students and young people are increasingly involved in, not just in education but in fighting the ideological attacks that we face at the hands of the Tories/the powerful/the man.

As educators and researchers, we must maintain the links we have forged with students. We must support their movements and campaigns as they have supported us. To continue to provide free education in the form of teach outs, attend and contribute to their meetings and events where appropriate and maintain a dialogue- let’s keep talking to each other.

We must take action that taps into national movements and campaigns for change- things are happening with a Corbyn led Labour party- but this is not enough- party politics is never enough. We must work to build a grassroots movement from below. We can engage with the ‘slow scholarship’ movement, thinking about the value of slowness and care in teaching practice and research in (and as a form of resistance to) the neoliberal university. We must always look behind us and reach out that hand to the next PhD student/graduate teaching assistants/precarious worker/early career academic. Continue to build the union as the member led, strong, inclusive, open and democratic union we can now see for the first time in a long while. We must never cross a picket line!

More broadly we must not be afraid of conflict- big change is borne out of conflict- we can’t JUST talk, cajole, persuade and debate ourselves out of this one. We must FIGHT. Be brave! Don’t be beholden to the culture of fear that the neoliberal University uses to keep us quiet, separate, docile and compliant.

The hope is in a newly invigorated movement for change and a vision of education and a University based on FREE education, emergent from the UCU strikes. One that has been forged and developed on picket lines and in teach outs together with students.

The cultural studies theorist Mark Fisher posed the question ‘what if you held a protest and everyone came?’ Well, we did: USS strikes: Everyone came: Academic staff, professional services staff, activists, long standing union members, new members, PhD students, Graduate Teaching Assistants, post graduate students, undergraduate students, fellow trade unionists, post 92 UCU branches, dogs, cats, babies, children, old, young, lecturers, researchers, professors. They all came. Despite the disappointment felt by many members after the ballot decision on Friday, let’s not let our heads go down but instead draw on the solidarity we have built thus far and fight on! With Hope.






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