UCU banner, Durham Miners Gala 2022 UCU banner, Durham Miners Gala 2022. Photo: @ucu / Twitter

Coordinated national action is by far the most effective way to curb this assault from Tory ideologues and university managements, write Counterfire UCU members

The Tory assault on universities is gathering pace and a sector marked by rampant inequalities, falling pay, deteriorating working conditions and management overreach is in crisis. Its future will be determined by who gets to win the battles ahead: university staff and students bearing the brunt of the attacks or vice-chancellors and ministers who want to reshape the higher education system in their own image.

Since the 2010 Browne Review recommended the trebling of tuition fees and the 2017 Higher Education & Research Act further liberalised the higher education sector, the Tories have attempted to impose an increasingly marketised logic on all aspects of university life. Services have been outsourced caps on student numbers lifted, bonds issued, precarity intensified, managerialism intensified, pensions cut and pay frozen.  Their latest ‘bright’ idea is to restrict access to tuition fee loans for those students who do not have English and Maths GCSEs, a policy widely criticised for discriminating against ethnic minority students.

We are facing a two-tier university sector. On the one hand, there is the privileged ‘Russell Group’ of 24 universities who are flush with cash (though sometimes saddled with debt) and able to use their reputation and the lack of regulatory controls to stuff as many students as possible into their labs and lecture theatres. On the other hand, there are dozens of universities, often former polytechnics serving working-class communities, who are scrabbling to recruit students in face of the de-funding of arts and social science subjects and a wider ideological argument that you don’t need a university degree to get a well-paid job.

This has led to a wholesale onslaught against humanities programmes in particular – courses like English, History, Media and Film Studies – which aren’t seen to offer the same economic reward to the economy as Stem subjects (those in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). In the last year, we have seen job cuts in the History and English departments at Goldsmiths, up to 250 jobs in arts programmes at Wolverhampton, scores of redundancies in arts subjects at Huddersfield and, most recently, the threat by Roehampton to sack half its workforce and axe arts and humanities programmes. When Sheffield Hallam University announced plans to scrap its English Literature degree, the author Philip Pullman responded  by arguing that studying literature ‘should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes’ – no doubt reflecting on the fact that there have been no such announcements at Oxford or Cambridge to stop the teaching of literature.

These assaults have been widely resisted at both national and local levels, mostly through industrial action taken by members of the University and College Union (UCU). Dozens of universities have been on strike already this year in opposition both to changes to the USS pension scheme and to protest the serious attacks in relation to pay, equalities, workloads and casualisation – the so-called ‘four fights’ dispute.

The economic arguments for cutting USS benefits are laughable. The most recent valuation of the scheme, which showed a £14bn deficit, was carried out at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and was used to lower benefits this year. However, by May 2022, the deficit had fallen to just £1.6bn with even the USS chief executive suggesting that the scheme was ‘resilient’ although those benefits have yet to be restored.

The ‘four fights’ dispute is more complex. Its embrace of the many issues that highlight precisely what’s wrong with contemporary higher education is both a strength and a weakness: a strength because virtually all university staff can relate to at least one of these problems; a weakness because the dispute is sprawling in nature and lacks a focus around which workers can unite. The ‘disaggregated’ nature of both disputes, a situation in which only branches that achieved more than a 50% turnout in their ballots could take part, further weakened the effectiveness of the action with many activists arguing that coordinated national action with a national ballot was increasingly necessary.

Earlier this month, UCU announced that all 80,000 of its members in Higher Education would be balloted this autumn, in an aggregated ballot, to take action over pensions and pay with possible strikes in November and further ballots set to take place in spring 2023. This is a really significant step which will provide an important rallying point for activists over the coming months. The union’s call for a pay rise for all staff of at least £2500 is essential to combat the cost of living crisis and a genuine opportunity to address the inequalities that permeate working practices in universities.

The employers won’t take this lying down. They will mobilise around claims of poverty or the need to embrace ‘efficiencies’ under pressure from the Office for Students. They will threaten strong UCU branches and target union activists as they are doing with the removal from duties of Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany, the Head and Deputy Head of the Media department at Goldsmiths, for emailing students with accurate information about the impact of the ongoing marking boycott on prospects for graduation. Or they will even question the very viability of specific programmes such as happened when the President of Queen Mary University repeatedly threatened Film Department staff that the University would block recruitment onto Film degrees because of their participation in a legal marking boycott.

Coordinated national action is by far the most effective way to curb this assault from Tory ideologues and their messengers who populate senior management teams in universities across the country. We can’t afford to kick this dispute down the road nor to leave it simply to stronger branches to carry the burden for the rest of the sector. We will need a noisy and political ‘get the vote out’ campaign that combines righteous anger at years of declining pay and worsening conditions with a political analysis of the tremendous costs of the marketisation of universities over the last decade.

Please add your name to the statement opposing Queen Mary management’s attempt to punish film studies staff for taking part in their marking boycott and pass a motion calling for the reinstatement of Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany, the Head and Deputy Head of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Department at Goldsmiths.

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