A crisis that needs leadership

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Since 2009, pay in the Further and Higher Education sector has been effectively cut by nearly 20 percent in real terms, while staff are being asked to work harder and longer than ever before. The employers’ own analysis highlights that women and black and minority ethnic staff experience significant pay discrimination. Casual contracts remain entrenched. Yet university employers are refusing to commit themselves to meaningful action on any of these appalling conditions. This has meant that members of the University and College Union (UCU) are currently taking strike action over falling pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads in what has become known as the “Four Fights” dispute.Socialist Review spoke to activists in the University and College Union (UCU), and members of the UCU Left network, about the escalating crisis in Higher Education and the Four Fights dispute.

SR: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on Higher Education?
Bee: It’s caused multiple waves of uncertainty and anxiety — from campus closures and hasty moves to online teaching, to navigating the support we need to work at home, to fears of increased workloads or job losses and the challenge of negotiating a safe return to campus. Finding work that isn’t highly precarious was already a big challenge. Now we face hiring freezes or threats to jobs, intensified competition for research funding, and casualised staff will have even less chance of more work in September.
Roddy: The mass strikes that ended in March were even bigger than those over pensions in early 2018, and brought us together to fight on more issues. Our negotiators said the employers were on the defensive, but then we went straight into lockdown. Initially there was a lot of fear, as well as huge pressure to support appeals for national unity against the pandemic. Now the employers hope that isolating us in our homes will prevent a fightback.
Sunil: I see the impact in four areas. One, employers see an opportunity to fast track changes they’ve wanted for a long time - cutting modules, courses and content, and enforcing a huge shift to online modes of delivery. Second, they want to cut thousands of casualised and fixed term jobs, including graduate teaching assistants who formed the backbone of the massive expansion in universities’ teaching provision. Third, despite these cuts to teaching quality, students are being charged the same fees as before. Last but not least, employers are playing roulette with our health and safety in their haste to move to ‘business as usual’.
SR: What role has the tuition fees regime played in the crisis?
Bee: It’s caused a fundamental shift from education being seen as a public good in and of itself to being all about neoliberal discourses of individualised attainment, “value for money”, and increased competition between STEM and humanities subjects. This is coupled with a drive to wards increased bureaucratisation, with league tables and a sectorwide adoption of blunt metrics to assess the efficacy of teachers, researchers and “student experience”, all diverting huge amounts of time and money which could be better spent on scholarly activities, professional development, and outreach and widening participation.
Roddy: The crisis has been magnified enormously by the way universities rely on tuition fees for income and research grants, and compete with each other for students. Fees set at £1,000 for UK-based students when introduced by the Labour government in 1998 are now almost everywhere over £9,000. The older Russell Group universities rely on income from inflated fees charged to overseas students. Imperial College, for example, charges a whopping £60,000 per year for a part-time Global MBA course at its Business School. Now these universities have demanded the right to recruit more of the domestic student market, threatening the recruitment, and therefore the financial viability, of institutions lower down the pecking order. So the gap between them is likely to get even wider.
Mark: It’s encouraging more unsafe workplaces. Universities are desperate to recruit students (or “customers”) by promising a full on-campus experience when the new academic year starts. Intrusive safety measures are deemed to put students off — so that means no compulsory face covering, no temperature checks and, to fit everyone in, classrooms timetabled back-to-back with no cleaning of surfaces or the air between one group of students and the next.
SR: The UCU is seen as a left union, with two big waves of strikes since early 2018. The election of a young woman activist as General Secretary last year was widely seen as a rejection of the old leadership. What’s happened since then?
Sunil: Jo Grady’s election brought hope that the union would move away from the bureaucratised “service” model of the past to work for real change in the sector. I was one of many activists who proposed joining up pre and post92 institutions in the Four Fights and USS disputes, so that we all stand and fight together. The current ballot on the employers’ offer on the Four Fights dispute (over pay, workload, casualisation, gender and ethnicity pay gaps) feels pivotal. Abandoning this dispute now would be a huge blow.
Roddy: Jo was elected by a huge majority in a record turnout. She wasn’t the candidate UCU Left supported, but was identified with a new generation of activists angered by the previous leadership’s behaviour. That included throwing away the chance of victory in the huge USS pensions strikes in early 2018, then — incredibly — calling off our annual congress when we tried to call them to account. We’ve been seen as a fighting union. But since the lockdown began there’s been no national lead around the attacks we face, particularly the threat of mass job losses.
Anne: The two waves of strike action since 2018 transformed the union and Jo Grady’s election is a partial expression of that process. Thousands of new activists have been tested in sustained industrial action and learnt a lot in the process about organising collectively. But the last strikes weren’t easy — the employers had dug themselves in and it was becoming a bit like trench warfare. So when the pandemic hit, in some branches the initial feeling was one of exhaustion. Nationally, the UCU’s lack of initiative was in stark contrast to the way the NEU [teachers’ union] leadership stood up to the government over the re-opening of schools.
What resistance has there been so far to the new attacks?
Bee: We mobilised quickly at a grassroots level. UCU Left has run webinars and organising meetings since the beginning of lockdown, providing activists with a space for solidarity, debate and discussion. We’ve also set up the UCU Solidarity Movement, clustered around branches facing cuts, creating a much needed support network for activists on the ground.
Mark: Yes, that’s been the most notable development. This grouping organised two mass online rallies, each with around 600 people, which demanded that the UCU leadership emulate the tactics of the NEU and mobilise members around a national strategy to resist job losses. This helped force Jo Grady to launch Fund the Future, a political lobbying campaign in support of post-16 education.
Roddy: UCU Left has organised impressive events almost every week, often on a bigger scale than anything else we’ve ever been involved in. That’s partly because the passivity of the national leadership has left a huge gap. That passivity is also why branches facing cuts, like SOAS and Imperial College, have felt the need to build rank and file solidarity to coordinate resistance. I hope we can encourage the union nationally to mobilise for what is genuinely the fight of our lives.
SR: How have activists responded to the Black Lives Matter movement?
Anne: The re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reflects the way in which Covid 19 exacerbates structural inequality, especially racism — as shown by the shocking differences in the death rates for different ethnic groups. Although the initial impetus was around police brutality, the broader reach of BLM in becoming a movement has huge implications for education. London Metropolitan University, for example, removed the name of John Cass, a merchant who profited from the slave trade from one of its Schools after a campaign by students. The recent protests have also encouraged fresh reflections on how to decolonise the curriculum. I helped organise a meeting on Black British Radicals with NEU colleagues at which around 70 activists discussed strikes by Asian workers in the 1970s, and the legacy of figures such as Darcus Howe and Olive Morris who fought police brutality and racism. Many on the call said they’d never heard of this history before. The demands of this new generation of BLM activists must be taken up within UCU and fought for in our universities. We can’t rely on our institutions to deal with the institutional racism which traps Black staff in lower paid and more precarious jobs, marginalises Black students and exposes them to racism.
Sunil: Lancaster UCU has worked with Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) locally to organise ‘take the knee’ rallies, online campaigns and public meetings. Lots of this work has been fantastic elsewhere too. National UCU should be exploring ways to work with SUTR more closely.
SR: What’s likely to happen in the new academic year?
Bee: In truth, nobody knows. Management teams are making plans for most staff and students return to campus, but we have no concrete plans that can possibly guarantee everyone’s safety. We don’t know how many staff might be lost across the sector between now and September, and how the inevitably increased workload of dual-mode (online and face-to-face) teaching can be managed effectively without serious investment in staff.
Mark: The Institute for Fiscal Studies says 13 universities are in big financial trouble, but the price of any government bail out will be more attacks on staff pay and conditions. The Tories say they want to axe ‘low quality’ courses in favour of degrees that enhance graduate pay — abandoning any idea that higher education is about critical inquiry as a social good and turning it into training for jobs, pure and simple. That would mean only the richer institutions teaching ‘luxury’ humanities and arts subjects. The next academic year could see tens of thousands of job losses across the sector, the collapse of many universities, and the entrenchment of the idea that for most people, education is simply an individual investment in training for a career. Or there will be a serious fight in defence of university education. That fight will need to be broader than an industrial struggle by HE workers. It will need to involve students and make the political case for a public state funded education system for the benefit of society as a whole.