Library cuts and mathemagics

A struggle over library cuts reveals how shock doctrine tactics work at the level of an individual university. Seth Uzman reports on how workers and students are fighting back.

Demonstration against cuts to library staff at SOAS. Photo: Save SOAS Library

Over thirty campus workers at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London walked out at noon on Tuesday 11 December, protesting against management plans to cut library staff by 25%. They were joined by over 150 students, faculty and staff, who greeted them with solidarity, chanting, “They say cut back! We say fight back!” and, “Students and Workers: Unite and Fight!”

Management announced the cuts within their “One Professional Service” (OPS) restructuring plan. This is neoliberal-speak for cutting workers on the bottom to pay for bloat on top.  The plan is to eliminate 30 jobs, including 13 of the library staff. One librarian commented, “The library staff only makes up about 15% of the whole non-academic staff, [but] we have to face 35% of the cuts from professional services.”

But there is no reason why cuts of any size are necessary at all. As one former librarian noted, “The people responsible for this f*cked up situation are up there and they have high salaries and that sector of this school is totally bloated…and they’re meanwhile hiring MORE managers.” SOAS runs a budget deficit of over £5 million but its strategy is to cut the people who cost the university the least amount of money.  The new cuts amount to £650,000, but SOAS has spent an average £3 million on “consultants”, hired to give advice…on reducing the deficit.  It’s a lesson in the mathemagics of neoliberal accounting. Earmarks for managers, who at SOAS received nearly £1 million in raises last year, wear an invisibility cloak on university balance sheets. The university knows the OPS is theft, and they announced the cuts during the last week of term in the hope we won’t notice.

As one staff member put it, the OPS is a culmination of a broader shock-doctrine strategy shrunk to university-size.  As outlays for more managers have not been matched on the balance sheet by the increased student enrollment that putatively justified them, the university has manufactured a budget crisis demanding its own austerity and restructuring.

Nevertheless, the same staff member remarked, it was a huge mistake of the university to target the one service so central to everything that happens on campus.  This kind of outrageous stupidity brings students and workers together. For that they almost deserve our thanks – but we won’t give them any.

The cuts won’t just affect students and workers at SOAS because universities and their libraries don’t exist in isolation. They are international workplaces, sustained by the exchange of labour and resources with other educational institutions abroad. This is why the campaign shouldn’t be limited to building support merely at SOAS, or the University of London, but should be international in scope.

And what (mis)management wants to do at SOAS, university managements are planning elsewhere. So we need to show that the only answer to austerity is solidarity.

Sign the petition to stop the cuts at SOAS Library.

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