Goldsmiths Pimlott Building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Goldsmiths Pimlott Building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We repost Branch Solidarity Network’s interview with two Goldsmiths staff members involved in the dispute and the BSN June 2020 bulletin

Teaching staff on hourly paid Associate Lecturer contracts as well as some fixed-term contract staff are holding an unofficial ‘wildcat’ marking boycott across three departments at Goldsmiths, University of London. This is the result of the Goldsmiths Senior Management team withholding new contracts for these groups of staff as the most significant of a raft of ‘cost saving’ measures in the light of falling student numbers due to Covid-19. If none of them were re-employed, this would mean the loss of 472 staff – that is almost 40% of the teaching staff.

BSN interviewed two staff on fixed-term contracts who have been involved in the dispute and asked them to explain why they are taking the action, how it has been organised and what the lessons are for members across the sector.

Teaching staff at Goldsmiths university have been involved in a marking boycott for about a month. Can you tell us what the dispute is about?

Well it is really about the proposed layoff of 472 casualised staff which the university didn’t even announce – they just put it in a document that was sent to the union UCU. And the university haven’t given us any figures on equalities issues about who is being laid off but we are seeing that in most departments most of the academics who are being faced with being laid off are black or people of colour and this is not being acknowledged by management.

The university isn’t even treating them as redundancies which is what they really are, because there is work to be done. These are courses that people have taught on and that have run for many years and management are not being open about that. They are not being honest that what looks like almost 40% of the academic staff are facing redundancies – that is staff who are on hourly-paid contracts (Associate Lecturers or ALs) or people on temporary fixed-term contracts. Those layoffs will mean either huge increases in workload for permanent staff or loads of courses being cut and they are not being honest about that either and they have not involved the union in negotiations over the redundancies.

Because of the time frame we weren’t able to have an official dispute so what happened is that the most precarious staff, the hourly paid AL staff, started a marking boycott which is happening now in three departments and about a month later we on fixed term contracts joined that boycott so we are not marking or moderating any work and it is already making a huge impact.

We are also running a media campaign online to raise awareness and to try to expose Goldsmiths’ hypocrisy of branding itself a radical and progressive institution but laying off in a very callous and heartless way, very vulnerable people in the middle of a recession and a pandemic.

We are already getting some concessions from the management who completely ignored the campaign to start with or delegitimised it by saying its not an official action organised by a recognised trade union. Well now they have agreed to meet with the union and the campaigners and the whole tone of management has now changed – they have started offering some contract extensions and renewals.

And questions of solidarity have come into this and have been at the forefront of the campaign, not only in terms of the ALs who got support from wider meetings – they were like the heroes of the CoronaContract meetings. When they said “we are on a marking boycott”, other people are then looking to them in leading the fight because they are actually doing something, they are risking something and putting themselves on the line and that should be supported. The fixed-term contract staff wouldn’t have done what we’ve done if the AL staff hadn’t taken the action first – it made it easier for us to show solidarity and join those actions and that’s been crucial. They were setting an example and lots of people are thinking ‘well if they can do it there, we can do it here’.

That’s interesting because one of the reasons people don’t take unofficial action is because they think it’s illegal and they’ll get into terrible trouble

What’s important to remember about this action is that it comes out of organising casualised workers for years at Goldsmiths, the campaign to get the cleaners in house, the campaign to get the security guards in house and also Goldsmiths Anti-racist Action (GARA) – some of the people who organised the ALs were very involved in giving support to that campaign, so there’s all these networks and solidarities built up over the years. And it has been people with the most to lose who have taken the action and they’ve been inspirational in terms of leading others and actually prompting permanent staff to take more decisive action. Its been a really good example of how one group of workers can really inspire another and also knowing we had support from our colleagues on permanent contracts has made it easier to act.

What can permanent staff do to support you and what can the wider trade union movement do?

One thing is spreading awareness, so last week we had a virtual picket line which was really successful where we had a couple of days of people retweeting our tweets using the hashtag #saveourjobs and we’re gonna do that again because we have a crunch meeting with senior management so we’d like the trade union movement to back us and help to amplify our voices and our cause as precarious workers.

I think permanent staff also need to be honest with themselves, that if they don’t fight these cuts and don’t help us fight these cuts then they are going to be the next in line. You know, its easier for people to think “oh there’s a financial crisis, someone’s gotta go here” but we all know that if the management can get away with these cuts there is going to be increased workload for permanent staff and there are probably going to be redundancies and there is going to be an attack on student provision. This is an attack on everyone and permanent staff have to fight this as if it is 472 redundancies because that it what it is.

Permanent staff need to stand up for themselves and their conditions because if they don’t fight these cuts that management are imposing, especially on casualised staff, their own working conditions are going to deteriorate and not just for individual universities but for the whole sector – higher education is undermined when academics are working all hours and in the evenings and weekends. In order to provide a quality education for our students we need to be in a situation where people are not stressed to the bone in terms of workload. We need to defend the sector and the educational values of the sector.

Has this dispute shed any light on HE or given your any reflections on the situation we are in?

What has happened to higher education in the last 10 years is that it’s become further casualised, and not just because universities are run on the labour of casualised staff but also conditions for permanent staff have become casualised in the sense that they are overworked and being expected to take on more and more work outside of teaching and research – you know, we are supposed to do more audit-based admin and recruitment and marketing and endless funding proposals. We are all expected to do all of this in addition to teaching and research and it’s become so based on metrics that educational quality has really suffered.

In the last 10 years marketisation has made education so instrumental where universities are run as businesses with a more managerial culture and where the decision on whether to open or close a course is not based on educational need but it has become a decision based on how much money they are going to bring in…You actually cannot run HE on a marketized system – there are important courses where you are not going to be able to make money – you just can’t. It has to be funded publicly.

I’ve been thinking of how vulnerable universities have been to the Covid crisis and that is a direct result of the changes to the funding system from 2010 onwards and the fact that they get very little income coming directly from government in the form of grants and more is coming in the form of student fees. So, there has been an incentive for universities to chase international students who pay huge fees and who now look unlikely to come to the UK next year. So the system is quite vulnerable to, yes extreme, but quite short-term shocks. Like Covid-19 is going to lead to a blip, but it will only be a temporary blip, but a significant one in student numbers. So when you are reliant on student numbers and student fees, on this market mechanism for finances, it makes higher education very vulnerable.

One of the other things that organising around this that has been made clear to me and has got me to reflect on is the level of really almost abusive employment relationships in universities. It is an extremely anxiety-producing and precarious sector where as a young academic you are having to constantly sell yourself, put yourself out there, go ‘above and beyond’ to please your supervisor or manager just so you can get that contract extension or contract renewal. And that can lead you to be docile and passive, but what we’ve seen is that people in that situation can also fight back and people are becoming much more confident themselves with talking to their own managers. It has been a transformative experience for a lot of people in terms of building their confidence and changing the way they see and relate to their managers and colleagues. 

You can find out more about anti-casualisation struggles at Goldsmiths here.

We Won’t Pay For Your Crisis: Branch Solidarity Network June 2020 Bulletin

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