Michael Mair – A Fight on Their Hands: The Next Wave of UK University Strikes

A year and a half ago there was a major university strike by academics and staff in the UK. They were resisting an attack on their union as well as the financialisation of their pension scheme. The coverage by mainstream media within the UK was – as is to be expected – disgraceful. Following our policy of giving Europeans fighting against neo-liberalism with little voice in the media a platform, we posted a number of articles by those participating in the strike. The resonance to these articles was not only impressive in Britain, but worldwide. With the next set of strikes beginning next week, we have renewed this offer. This is the first article in what we hope will be a successful struggle.

Dr Michael Mair is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool and works on politics, accountability and contemporary warfare and conflict.

On Monday the 25th November, staff at 60 UK universities affiliated with the University and College Union (UCU) will begin the first of eight days of continuous strike action. More is set to come in 2020. Building on the rolling strike action of 2018, reported in Brave New Europe at the time, this new wave of strike action deepens and widens the dispute. While the 2018 dispute sought to stop Universities UK (UUK), the employers body representing UK Higher Education Institutions, from unilaterally withdrawing defined pension rights from university staff, the current action extends the dispute to take in casualisation, pay inequality and in-work discrimination alongside pension rights. This strike follows and builds upon similar action by other unions representing allied workers in a wider university workforce of approximately 430,000 directly employed people.

The 2018 dispute ended with an agreement to abandon the employer’s pension proposals and enter talks; the strike succeeded in making the employers back down. In the ensuing period, however, the employers – through UUK and a second umbrella organisation, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) – have engaged in a phony war, using the truce to find ways of bringing back only slightly modified proposals on pensions while simultaneously upping the ante on performance management regimes. In a sector where wages have not just been stagnant but have decreased by 20% in real terms since 2010, universities are seeking ways to increase pressure on staff to do more in the form of unpaid work through the introduction of impossible role expectations, and to replace, wherever possible, better paid and secure jobs with badly paid and insecure jobs.

The principal tool of management in such a context is the assiduous cultivation of fear and anxiety pursued through a carefully distributed set of experiments aimed at pushing the boundaries of acceptable workplace practice. This culture of fear is coupled to the development of various new strategies for union suppression, leading to a host of local disputes across the university sector that are difficult to connect together thanks to the UK’s draconian anti-union laws. Universities, as part of broader work-intensification regimes, are working hard to transform themselves into super-exploiters of their own workforces. This is particularly true in the ‘richest’ universities. Rather than public institutions who engage in research and the delivery of education, university managers increasingly see their institutions as capital investment funds with a corporate hospitality wing concentrated on high income yield student housing, generating rents from a captive population of ‘customers’ and the government grants attached to them. Staff are not even a secondary consideration in this.

The political economy of higher education has been shifting globally for decades and these trends have been in train for some time, yet there is no doubt we are seeing them intensify further still. Rather than bastions of privilege, sheltered from the prevailing economic winds, university workers find themselves exposed to the gales; increasingly precarious, scrutinised by micro-management and utterly overworked. A huge number of workers in universities are on low-paid short-term, casualised or zero-hour contracts. On the academic side, the University and College Union (UCU) note the following:

  • Around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the sector remain on fixed-term contracts, with many more living precariously on contracts which are nominally open-ended but which build in redundancy dates.

  • There are 37,000 teaching staff on fixed-term contracts, the majority of them hourly-paid.

  • In addition, there are a further 71,000 teachers employed as ‘atypical academics’ but not counted in the main staff record.

  • Again, these are overwhelmingly hourly paid teachers, employed on the lowest contract levels and many of them employed as ‘casual workers’, with fewer employment rights.

  • 50% of these ‘atypical academics’ are employed by the richest elite ‘Russell Group’ universities.

  • [This] ‘reserve army’ of academic labour is doing between 25 and 30% of the teaching in many universities.”

For non-academic staff, the situation is worse as their work is subjected to the full effects of outsourcing; the withdrawal of workplace rights and benefits, poverty pay and extreme job insecurity. In a period characterised by structural bullying, harassment and discrimination, gagging orders and non-disclosure agreements are being used to silence university staff and prevent them from discussing their working conditions. During the 2018 disputes, employers even brought in security guards on zero-hour contracts to ‘police’ their own insecure staff as they protested against those very conditions. Universities are thus exacerbating many of the trends we witness at work in the entrenchment of inequality and socio-economic injustice globally today.

The implications of all this are deep. As an emblematic sector of the heralded ‘knowledge economy’, the plight of university workers is representative of workers’ experiences in the ‘new’ economy more generally. Workers everywhere are faced with employers who would happily see the back of not just permanent but even fixed term contracts; who would happily pile work on top of work without giving workers time to complete it; who seek to financialise and become asset vehicles rather than socially embedded elements within a human economy. In the case of universities, this is connected to the intense commodification of education, a paradigmatic public good, and the exploitation of all who work to provide it. In this sense, higher education is a microcosm and test-bed for the deregulated, austerian post-crash social, economic and political order, an order whose elaboration is being contested in the UK general election as much as in this wave of industrial action within UK universities.

This strike, just like the last one, is thus about much more than pensions. It is about a university growth model that is unsustainable and is quickly turning universities into vehicles for expanding profit through financial capitalisation involving student and worker exploitation. In opposing that exploitation from labour market entry to exit and the discrimination which routinely awaits individuals from many backgrounds within the workplace, these strikes seek to find and cement new lines of solidarities. It wasn’t just the employers who had time to plan ahead: UK university staff have been working hard too, building new connections, working together, finding ways of articulating fundamental demands on a collective basis – with students, with our fellow workers inside and outside the sector, internationally. A new generation has taken up industrial action, has seen success and is ready for this next wave of action. The universities are not going to get things their own way – they should know they have a fight on their hands.

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