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A toxic culture is harming university staff

Lecturer and UCU member Sol Gamsu sets out how decisions made by sector leaders over the past few years have led to this latest round of industrial action
This article is more than 1 year old

Sol Gamsu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Durham University

Staff in HE will be striking this week in the first action over pay, casualization, equalities and pension cuts. Why is this happening?

A large part of the answer to this question comes down to the tone-deaf, rotten way that the sector is run. Small groups of highly-paid senior managers have spent decades making decisions that seek to preserve or enhance personal and institutional status, whatever the cost.

Do students or staff matter?

Now of all times it is hard to answer that question positively. Precarity, pay gaps that disproportionately affect women and racially minoritized staff, over a decade of stagnant pay have ruined people’s lives.

What are the consequences of precarity? You can’t afford the basics. You’re forced to give up your pension. You can’t plan for a family or buying a house. You are forced to make multiple sacrifices to stay in the game.

And what about students? They are facing rising cost of living and rents and a total lack of adequate housing. This has been caused by totally irresponsible growth plans by universities that have ignored the consequences for housing.

The same logic of unending economic growth regardless of the consequences that has caused the housing crisis is also leading us to ecological disaster. And the two are linked, not only in the fossil fuel industries that are present on campus but in the uncounted cost of CO2 emissions every time another debt-funded university building is built.

The current generation of students will face the consequences of the climate emergency whilst bearing massive debts. It is worth remembering that the Russell Group effectively lobbied for interest rates to be raised and repayment thresholds to be lowered. This from a generation of university leaders who had themselves gone to university for free, generally with a maintenance grant too.

What explains the way that the sector is being managed?

Some of this comes down to the way that universities define and determine success. Many of the people who rise to the top of universities have been highly “successful” academics. They are professors, ex-heads of department or faculty, they have published and won research grants – they’ve finished the game so management is the obvious next step. They are used to power and success but at what cost?

Higher education is a deeply hierarchical field. It incentivizes a competition for status and prestige through publications and research funding. To excel in these areas (whilst ticking enough other boxes) the easiest path often involves climbing over others to achieve that success – letting others take on citizenship or teaching roles; relying on and exploiting precariously employed research assistants or teaching fellows. This also requires discipline and not questioning the way that universities are organized too deeply.

Outsourced security guards or cleaning staff on precarious poverty pay? Not my problem. Tuition fees and rents going up for students? Nothing I can do. Administrative staff being cut and centralized? That’s not my area. Your colleague struggling after a decade of casual contracts? That’s tough but it’s a sectoral issue, it’s beyond me to change that.

This all seeps through to the culture and attitudes that are present when people reach the top. Senior managers that laugh when you ask them whether their pension is worth more than yours. Senior leaders will cross the road to avoid talking to their own striking staff. One VC in the North when asked about their staff using a foodbank, replied that he “didn’t care”.

Culture change

There is a culture within universities that is deeply troubling and toxic. There are many, many people, including people in managerial posts who seek to push against this, but the direction of travel of the last few decades has not gone in the right direction.

If university managers want to know why they are facing a national strike, they only need to look in the mirror. Students and staff are on the same side. The marketized system of higher education serves none of us.

The system of higher education that we have was not built over night. It is the result of four decades of reforms that have sought to foster competition, hierarchy and markets and squeeze students and staff in the process. It has worsened inequalities within the sector with universities that serve working-class and racially minoritized communities hit hardest.

Our ballot is about pay, pensions and working conditions but what really underpins all of this is a mode of managing universities that is based on competition, debt and exploitation. Staff and students have borne and continue to bear the cost of this. It is not sustainable and we will not put up with it any longer.

10 responses to “A toxic culture is harming university staff

  1. This is utter rubbish and ignores the financial realities that many universities have faced and are facing. It ignores the external drivers in an attempt to stoke division and uses some truths (there are the aggressive non-caring individuals in every sector) to exaggerate and pretend that is universal. WonkHE should really consider if this is worthy of such a platform.

  2. This is a piece by a member of the trade union that is taking industrial action on Thursday. Whether or not you agree with this analysis, it is an encapsulation of the arguments and positions that other parts of the sector will have to engage with if the five year streak of poor industrial relations is going to come to an end any time soon.

    1. “Analysis” is exactly what it isn’t. It is an opinion piece without balance. There are serious debates to be had around many critical issues, and industrial action may rightfully form part of that debate. Topics such as the marketisation of universities are thorny multi-decade challenges and many (but not all) universities are under significant financial pressure; and it’s getting worse. There is a real danger we will start losing chunks of the sector, but the simplistic “it’s the fault of rotten VCs” is a distraction from tackling those real, difficult issues.

      1. We do also have the Chief Executive of UCEA on the site this morning. It is important that we cover the full range of views.

      2. Analysis is exactly what it is, and rather than attacking VCs or managers who enable precarity, Sol is critiquing the entire edifice of the competitive differentiation of marketisation, English-style, that leads to managerial bean-counting. The market is ‘the external driver’ and it is corrupting the soul of the sector. We are in higher education to develop and transmit knowledge to our students, to create new knowledge through research and to create a safe space for grown-up and pluralistic critical debate. The real financial difficulties faced by the sector are entirely the fault of this competitive market and the successive governments that have built it to appease elite institutions that benefit most from its inherent divisiveness.

      3. Henry Williams, do any VCs take significant pay cuts to help their universities with the financial pressure they are facing? Have any radically reformed the endemic problems that have worsened due to political and sectoral decisions over the past few decades?
        Sol actually granted that some managers try to improve things, but surely the main tendency among the highest-up is to effectively suggest that exploiting their lowest-paid staff is necessary due to financial limitations (regardless of whether their own universities are in surplus or not) while taking handsome salaries for themselves. Structural issues such as economic and political constraints intersect with the cultural issues Sol describes.

  3. I completely agree with what Sol is saying – there is however a practical challenge in how to deal with this in the short term and about collective bargaining.

    UCU (Not levelled at Sol!) does this thing where they take the collective assets (including buildings!) of the sector and then uses this to say everyone can afford a pay rise.

    The problem of course is that Universities are autonomous organisations, and the truth is that quite a few have poor and declining finances – especially the ones who are not recruiting large numbers of international post-graduate students.

    Now we get here by a mixture of organisational mismanagement and underfunding *but* it still does not solve what we do. We are coming to end of collective bargaining and in next year will see more Universities move to employ staff via third parties to avoid both USS and TPS – something we have seen moves to this year and last year.

    It’s a sorry state of affairs and I see no easy way out.

  4. I don’t particularly think it was universities that chose the marketisation route. This was the impact of successive governments on both sides.

    Think many more universities are fighting for survival than people think.

  5. The most toxic thing about universities is UcU. Completely detached from financial reality and driven by ideology.

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