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Is the USS dispute exposing infrastructure failures in HE?

The USS dispute has highlighted old, and new, tensions in the HE sector. Penny Andrews asks what we can learn, and where we go from here.
This article is more than 5 years old

Penny Andrews is a researcher at the University of Sheffield.

Something is rotten in the state of Bloomsbury, and it is increasingly conspicuous all over the internet. “We’re very happy to meet tomorrow,” tweeted the Universities UK Twitter account one evening, “We are happy to meet tomorrow”…”We are very happy to meet @ucu tomorrow”, in response to anyone who interacted with it. Vice chancellors’ messages to staff at striking institutions bore similarly repetitive hallmarks about “strength of feeling” and it was hard not to feel like Theresa May herself was responding in a strong and stable way to those involved in the current UCU industrial action.

Is the infrastructure crumbling away?

Infrastructure isn’t just about pipes and drains or cables and wires, or even pensions and deficits. It has all sorts of characteristics as defined by Susan Star, not least that it “becomes visible on breakdown”. The infrastructure, or rather some of the infrastructures plural, underpinning UK HE has started to make itself seen, because it has started to fail, and its weaker parts are on display. As strikers, it feels like we have exposed the managerial infrastructure as not working, and the effects of the lack of investment in human infrastructure for teaching, research and professional services.

Over the course of the action so far, Universities UK looks less and less like it represents the views of VCs, as VC statements to staff and students diverge not only from the agreed UUK lines but also from their own early positions. Not all VCs agree there is a pensions deficit, that there should be preconditions for talks, that there needs to be a move from defined benefit to defined contribution pensions, that the valuations are accurate or that UUK’s consultation process was fair and representative. It is not clear how much faith VCs have in UUK to accurately put forward their position in negotiations, which must also cast doubt on how well they are carrying out the rest of the mission of the organisation.

Just pensions or something more?

VCs themselves look less and less like they represent the views of the institution. The majority of students support the UCU action, and many undergraduates, taught postgrads and PhD students join us on the picket lines and rallies, with support from student occupations in multiple universities over the first 14 days. Moderate colleagues who have never picketed, never been on strike or even never joined the union before have been signing up to UCU in droves. The size of the strike is unprecedented in UK universities and reflects in many cases the way the action has become about more than pensions, but about the marketisation of HE, the fees and loans debate, treating students as consumers, lack of funding for staff and student mental health and other changes that are at odds with the purpose and values of education and educators.

The current governance structures are not holding UUK, VCs and USS to account. Pension experts agree that the USS scheme has been badly mismanaged, including the unwise decision of UUK to cut pension contributions when times were good. Staff and students have struggled to get meetings and responses from their VCs, and so many organisations are based out of Woburn House that it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see how an echo chamber may have occurred. The communications from university senior management and UUK have been tone deaf, before and after the ACAS-brokered deal that was so vociferously rejected by UCU branches and members.

Exposing the frayed wires has also opened up a more positive side to the academy. We have seen the development of solidarity at lower levels of universities. It is hard to ignore the role of social media in organising and mobilising strikers into what may be, if sustained, a longer term protest movement for the rights of students and staff. It has been possible to see a digital picket line form, something we have never really employed in UK HE, and resistance to the sometimes crass official university communications that kept blaring out as individual accounts stopped promoting their own academic work.

Grass roots showing

There has been a noticeable change in what constitutes our perception of “grassroots academics” – many heads of school have been out on the picket line, and have been put under unfair pressure by the more punitive minority of institutions when it comes to dealing with the effects of strike action. Some departments were “all out”, including the Politics department at the University of Sheffield, which enabled more junior researchers to feel confident about their part in the action – even if it still hits their pay packets as hard.

Senior and more established academics are showing increased concern for the issues of precarious workers and casualisation in HE, and attention has been drawn to the lack of UCU work on the effects of pension changes on women, disabled workers and workers of colour – all of whom are more likely to be in precarious and low-status work for longer. By standing in solidarity on the pickets and sharing cake in the snow and rain, it has been good to see a lot more appreciation for the work of professional services staff – and the glorious banners of the “angry librarians”.

What has been most interesting and heartwarming is that it is clear workers in HE have what Jo Cox called “more in common than what divides us”. Once freed from discussing institution and discipline specific matters, and hiding away in department and service specific offices and meetings, strikers began to talk about their values and scrutinising the changes in higher education as well as strike and pension related documents. Strike time offered space for the academy many would like to see, but are hamstrung by bureaucracy and lack of time to enact, including a better work-life balance due to the ASOS commitment (which may not be 9-5). Teachouts, zines, placards and other forms of creative expression and “impact” are being valued and new relationships forged.

What next?

Ideally we would have the space to continue this mutual support and de-siloing of the university – although solidarity will be made more difficult by the media and popular narrative. This frames the strike incorrectly as a lecturers’ strike, and reinforces traditional power dynamics in privileging the voices of middle class white men and the most elite institutions, when the work of women and people of colour has often been the most important and involved the most personal and career risk. PhD students, postdocs, librarians, teaching fellows, widening participation workers and professional services staff are all taking part in the strike and ASOS action. Strikers are crowdfunding support now for the IWGB outsourced workers strike, including cleaners, porters and receptionists amongst other casualised workers.

All of this has interesting implications for a sector where alternative imaginaries seem to have been dismissed by pragmatists as the crazy dreams of utopians and hardline Marxists. A more cooperative, within and between institutions, values-driven and student and worker centred HE is possible – with time to face the world as well as play the academic game. Infrastructure is everything, governance is everything, inclusion is everything. And things like crispy cakes, and Sandstorm by Darude, win friends and allies.

2 responses to “Is the USS dispute exposing infrastructure failures in HE?

  1. – What next? Maybe a different way of doing things. We could start big with this literature on cooperative universities: Or we could start small by collectively agreeing to strip back the many bureaucracies that prove counter-productive to our actual teaching/research experience (TEF, REF, surveillance of foreign students …). And we could surely all start by talking to each other again, out of our silos. Could universities provide a non-privatised social space for staff pls? With coffee facilities. Turns out, it’s actually quite important!
    #USSstrike #NoCapitulation

  2. Excellent piece There are some serious questions to be raised about how Alistair Jarvis was appointed. It was rushed through with less than two weeks to apply, only advertised AFAIK on the UUK website and facebook page and the normal on line process was, exceptionally waived with candidates just emailing a 2 page statement and CV to HR. This is not the way a serious organisation appoints its CEO- especially when both its President and former CEO have records of commitment to Equality and Diversity. When you add that Dame Janet Beer has the right to nominate VC’s to the UUK Board it doesn’t look like an agency representing the views of all Vice Chancellors- let alone”the Voice of Universities as the slogan claims.

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