Why the Latest Strike Wave at UK Universities is Likely to Achieve Little

When I left the UK in 2017, British universities were entangled in a serious dispute about pensions, pay, workloads, and the progressive casualization of academic labor. Already then, the University and College Union (UCU) had called strikes to challenge the status quo on these issues. While abroad, working at a university in China, I watched this dispute continue, as UCU continued to call strikes and universities’ leaders steadfastly refused to budge on any of these issues.

In early 2022, I returned to the UK, just in time for the continuation of this dispute. In accordance with the UK’s recent restrictive legislation on strikes, UCU has obtained a mandate for far-reaching industrial action from a large majority of its members. This will begin in the coming days and weeks, with three days of industrial action and instructions for academics to strictly work to contract. Further, far more sweeping action is planned for the coming year, should negotiations with universities’ leaders not yield meaningful results. UCU has supported its case for this programme of strikes and work to contract by publishing data on British university’s financial position, arguing that the latter would enable universities to substantially improve academics’ working conditions, should they desire to do so. It has a staked a lot on this programme, labelling it “UCU Rising” and promising an effective challenge to the increasingly difficult conditions for academic labour at British universities.

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To be quite clear, I am fully supportive of the planned strikes, and I hope that they will bring the desired results. Unfortunately, though, I do not think that they will. There are several reasons for this. First of all, academics do not have a meaningful political lobby, our work is poorly understood in public life, and we lack public visibility. For many years now, both under Labour and Conservative governments, academics in the UK have been at the receiving end of a fundamentally hostile policy agenda that has sought to monitor and curtail our work and make it conform more closely to ‘taxpayers’ interests.’ From the REF to the TEF to the imposition of ‘impact’ as a key standard for the regimentation of academic labor, these policy measures have shown little sympathy or understanding for academics and academic work.

At the same time, mass media have little to say about academics, and less that it positive or conveys a meaningful sense of how we work. Read the Daily Mail to be informed about “militant lecturers” who will deal a “blow for undergraduates who have already suffered campus closures during the pandemic and extended use of online learning.” Then read the readers’ comments on that same news article, to be reminded of stereotypes of academics and the notion that people “who work in education are the people that wouldn’t survive in real jobs, in the real world.” Then turn to the education section of The Guardian, at the other end of the mainstream political spectrum, to find a mix of student-centric coverage, shockers about underpaid academics living in tents, and little else. This suggests, again, that there is little public understanding of or interest in academics, and thus likely little public support for our strike or positive changes to our working conditions. Both UCU’s campaigns over the years and the activities of other groups, such as the Council for the Defence of British Universities, have failed to change this in a meaningful way.

And then there is the way in which the campaign itself is framed. Declining pensions and salaries, odious workloads, and demeaning contract terms are all key issues affecting academics in the UK today. However, they are also symptoms of a much deeper crisis of British academia that the union’s campaigns have largely disregarded. I am referring to the conversion of universities, from the 1980s onwards and then at pace under New Labour and the Conservatives, from centers of higher learning into business enterprises to which scholarship is of little interest, unless it can be monetized in some way.

The marketization of higher education has been accompanied by the death of collegiality as core principle of academic governance, and by the solidification of sharply hierarchical, at least tendentially authoritarian management structures. This shift is visible in the pervasive divide between ‘academics’ and ‘administrators’, and in the subordinate position which academics, as a professional group, occupy in the academic food chain. Taking away your pensions, overloading you with teaching and admin, and keeping you in your job in a per-semester contract with no security at all – these practices are possible because of fundamental shifts in academic governance and in the structures by which universities operate. UCU does not seem to have had much to say about these fundamental shifts, and campaigns such as UCU Rising do not challenge them.

As long as there is no fundamental challenge to the increasingly problematic – anti-intellectual, hierarchical, authoritarian – basics of academic governance today, it seems improbable to me that much at all will change for academics. At worst, the forthcoming strikes will simply enable universities to withhold salaries for strike days – entirely legally – while asking lecturers to make up for missed work later on. At best, there will be some increases to pensions and salaries, while the basic problems of marketized universities-run-as-businesses will still not be addressed.

Why is this so? There has, over the years, been so much critical commentary and sophisticated scholarship on the marketisation of higher education and its destructive consequences, from complex research on academic capitalism to punchy books like Peter Fleming’s recent Dark Academia. I have only guesses to offer on this, but I suspect that the scholars who write these texts may also be the scholars who read these texts, and that this sort of critical analysis of higher education has little bearing on the thinking of politicians, trade unionists, academic managers, and the general public. While this remains so, UK academics will continue to struggle to make their voices heard.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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