Mixed Feelings

With Brighton UCU’s five day all-out strike called off, Mark Perryman admits to some mixed feelings 

Today, on Monday 8th February, Brighton University and College Union was due to go on a five day all-out strike against the compulsory redundancy of a member of staff in the university IT department.

The strike’s been called off, the individual is leaving: there’s no compulsory redundancy to oppose.

Which has left me with mixed feelings.

The strike was rather bombastically announced as in the cause of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. Solidarity is a principle I absolutely subscribe to. My mixed feelings reside not in rejecting the principle, but in raising the cause of ‘an injury to thousands is an injury to all.’

Those thousands are our students, who are being charged full fees for a 2020-21 academic year that for the most part has been online. And many are expected to pay halls of residence fees for unoccupied accommodation too.

Yes, staff have bent over backwards to make online teaching as good as possible, me included, but it’s simply not the same as in person, on campus. If it is, let’s shut up shop now and stick with what we’re offering.

University lecturers are not in loco parentis in the way school teachers are, but emotionally and professionally we are responsible for our students. So when my Semester Two module starts on Friday, I’m going to run a survey: how many students on the module believe their fees should be halved for this academic year? And if it’s a majority, as I’m sure it will be, I will communicate that through the university structures, reporting each week the response. My small act of resistance, and, yes, solidarity.

The UCU’s failure properly to address this inequity, let alone fight it, is a product of a faux-militant one-dimensional view of industrial action and our power as a union.

The greatest damage done to the universities in my lifetime was, first, the Labour government’s abolition of the student grant and its replacement by loans and tuition fees, and then the Tories and Lib Dems’ tripling of fees and their use to replace central  government financial support for the universities.

From that point on, universities become entirely marketised institutions, a process in which we, as employees, lecturers, including our union the UCU, have been almost entirely complicit with. Any opposition has been either token or ineffective.  

What we need instead is a three part ‘in and against the university’ strategy.

1. Information

There is now a managerial class on huge salaries, with none of the skills that rightly, or more correctly wrongly, might justify such wages in the commercial world. These are jobbing academics who have chosen the administrator’s route to the so-called top of their profession. Most students and many staff won’t be aware of the financial rewards this managerial class are receiving at the university’s expense. Ensure they do, information is power.

2. Fees Up, quality down

As the fees have gone up and up, despite the best efforts of highly committed staff, the quality of a university education has gone down and down. Here are two examples from personal experience.

On one degree I teach on, there has been the wholesale abolition of small-sized seminar groups in order to save on costly staff-intensive hours.  On another highly innovative module I teach, which features a wide range of guest speakers, we never had the money to pay them a fee, but did at least cover their travel and provide a refectory lunch. Both were unilaterally removed, leaving us to scrabble around as best we could with local replacements – all good, but it narrowed the range considerably. 

In a marketised university system, publicity is power. A concerted campaign – to get the message out to schools and FE colleges, prospective students and their parents, future employers, as well as the current students we teach – that despite the eye-watering fees, the quality of a degree is going down and down, will stop the universities in its tracks.

3. Admissions non-cooperation  

Apart from good publicity, universities depend on staff co-operation, goodwill and voluntary labour for a successful admissions operation from school visits and open days to free copy for prospectuses and clearing. Until the universities actively oppose the fees and loan system, we should refuse to take part in any admissions activity beyond what is contractual and insist on any staff taking part being allowed to make a statement on how the funding system will materially affect new students’ education, for the worse.

Any of these actions would be immeasurably more effective than a UCU picket line, they put lecturers firmly on the side of our current, and future students. Taken together, for the first time since the anti-tuition fees protests and occupations of 2010, there might be a real prospect of reversing the marketisation of our universities.

Mark Perryman is a part-time Research Fellow in Sport and Leisure Culture at the University of Brighton and a member of Lewes CLP.  His latest book is Corbynism from Below, available here.

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