SOAS in crisis: a year of struggles

Seth Uzman looks back over the struggles on campus at SOAS in the past academic year, and draws lessons for the higher education sector as a whole.

Photo via @SaveSoasLibrary on Twitter

There is no shortage of writing in the mainstream press about the financial crisis confronting UK higher education and its rivals abroad. An editorial in the June print edition of The Economist did nothing to hide its smirking pleasure at the potentially imminent financial collapse of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – a rehearsed fable of left-wing credentials and failed double entry bookkeeping.  At least three universities in the UK alone are confronting bankruptcy and an even wider layer are experiencing acute and debilitating financial pressures, providing stark demonstration of the wider conditions of austerity that more mature ruling class publications like the Financial Times cannot afford to ignore. But there has also been a crisis of ambition on our side, so that the student revolt of 2010 and even the UCU strikes of 2018 – both of which offered a vision of an alternative – often feel like a distant memory.

The experience of campus struggles at SOAS over the past academic year is instructive in this context for three reasons. First, it uncovers the role that ethnically diverse and critically oriented universities in the UK play (or do not play) in British capitalism’s agenda for higher education.  Second, it reveals how the academic workplace can become sites of struggle over sharpening oppressive agendas and the rise of the new far-right.  Third, it highlights the bitter compromises that can result when workers and students wage isolated battles, finding themselves unable to challenge the terrain on which such struggles take place.

O(o)PS!

One window into the crisis of the institution has been the struggle over the restructuring of the university’s administrative departments.  In December 2018, management announced its proposal, ‘One Professional Service’ (OPS), for reorganising the structure of the non-teaching staff.  The staff themselves described the plan as an incomplete, insulting and unprecedented mess, as over 100 members found themselves in either impossible roles (for which they had more work, less pay and no training) or with no role at all in the new structure.

The cuts proved massively disruptive, with acute effects on the library staff and specialist departments, and on the potential degree plans of students in those areas.  At rallies, staff spoke of the personal distress and trauma they experienced for weeks and months as they struggled to find places for themselves in management schematics.  It was in this climate of panicked confusion and anxiety that management closed the consultation period and simply began to impose its agenda with abandon. From then on, resisting the OPS was a race against time and containing the collateral damage as the impact of the OPS planted ‘facts on the ground.’

Many staff either left in disgust for jobs on more humane terms elsewhere or were slowly (and painfully) matched to roles individually in the new structure.  Meanwhile, from 19 April to 9 May, final balloting began for strike action among Unison members around the demand for no compulsory redundancies.  The ballot, returning a 92% YES vote on a 57% turnout, played a crucial role in compelling management to concede on the union’s central demand.  This allowed remaining unmatched staff at SOAS who are now negotiating for new roles on slightly better terms to avoid the concurrent experience at other universities, such as Bradford, where management succeeded in imposing compulsory redundancies, forcing staff who wanted to stay but remained unsatisfied to give up on their grievances or resign.

Nevertheless, the oppressive damage imposed by the OPS remain: staff members of colour and women continue to bear the sharpest impacts of the cuts, experiencing the most dramatic rises in workloads and falls in pay.  That the restructuring will undergo an Equality Impact Assessment, tactically initiated by union members to expose the alliance of the OPS with oppressive agendas, suggests that the injustice of the OPS will not be a mere liability easily written off.

The crucial question remains, though, of how the restructuring could have been stopped altogether. Both industrial relations law and the union bureaucracy posed steep challenges to the rank and file. First, a serious fight against the OPS would have required going beyond Unison’s conservative approach to industrial relations law which fails to sanction such categorical demands.  Second, the structure of the Unison bureaucracy consciously postpones independent branch action by subordinating branch initiative to regional stalling structures. A strike challenging the viability of the OPS would have needed a strike date, not in late May/early June but at the beginning of February – when the attrition resulting from the OPS had not yet taken its full toll. This would have meant preparations at the latest in mid-January, if not late December. Third, the Tories’ Trade Union Act of 2016, requiring actionable ballots on industrial action to pull a turnout of 50% or more (while the British far-right are allowed MEP seats in the European Elections on turnouts that can’t break 37%), serves to undermine the work of activists on the shop floor and postpone militant action. Moreover, the crucial element of confidence was undermined by obstacles beyond one workplace, branch and union.

Student solidarity

Yet despite these challenges, the struggle seemed to clear away other obstacles.

One crucial development was the solidarity campaign organised by students.  The administration was probably betting on their absence from the fight, wagering that if management aligned the announcement of the cuts with the end of the teaching term on a campus still somewhat divided about the memory of the 2018 UCU strikes, that bitter apathy and confusion would isolate the staff.

In the past, the student Left used to expose the convergence between universities and industrial factories.  Among factories though, universities are special – where the living labour of non-teaching and teaching staff operate, not only on the dead, passive labour of raw materials and digital machinery of modern industry, but also on the similarly living, responsive labour of students preparing to enter the labour market. Students are less likely to remain passive when the administration attacks the member of staff who sends them (helpful) emails every week or is the individual they know that answers their questions about degree/school completion in their department office.

This feature of the academic workplace made considerable space for a student campaign that extended over six months and into exam season. The campaign carried out library ‘occupations’, set up petitions, went building to building speaking before students in their classrooms, hosted mass meetings and built solidarity with struggles both on and off campus. Ultimately this compelled a hostile Student Union to declare a vote of no-confidence in management and a pledge of solidarity with a potential strike by Unison.

#FeyziInBeckOut

The impact of the resistance to the OPS can’t simply be measured by the ground held within a sectional struggle.  Struggles usually do much more than this – even when they lose.  The students and organisation drawn into the resistance primed a campus suffering from a secular decline in student activism to fight elsewhere.

Following UNISON’s strong YES vote, students waged back-to-back weekly protests in the middle of exam season opposing the Law Department’s employment of Gunnar Beck, a party member and now elected MEP of the far-right, AfD in Germany.  The student-staff solidarity group, Crisis SOAS, which had organised by building links with struggles against sexual harassment/assault and discrimination, offered the infrastructure for organising these protests. New students and organisers were drawn into a campaign that had begun in opposition to the professional services restructuring but was now against the far-right and the institutional racism and sexism which helped cover up his and wider abuses on campus.

Here, a crucial task was to expose how the democratic deficits on campus created by austerity had advanced the creep of the far-right and strengthened an oppressive bureaucracy.  Distorted complaints and disciplinary infrastructure (and, in the case of sexual harassment at SOAS, the absence of any policy) enabled management to silence and cover-up abuse on campus by off-loading the labour of elaborating grievances on survivors rather than on the institution itself.  The situation reflected management’s wider neoliberal approach to grievances of sexist and racist abuse which treated them not as experiences demanding justice but as liabilities on balance sheets to be written off and dismissed.

The hundreds mobilised to protest these conditions during exams suggested what could be organised in their absence and what might be in store for the administration in the fall.  It was only after the first large, three hundred strong anti-racist protest that management began to shift on ‘no compulsory redundancies.’  Pressure against management continued on all fronts as the campaign sought to expose the political priorities underlying the connections between restructuring, casualisation and the creep of the far-right.  Challenging the university’s attempt to end the employment of the left-wing, BAME lecturer Feyzi Ismail, who had been employed on a casual basis for years, the campaign organised protests and petitions under the hashtag #FeyziInBeckOut.

The progress of the movement(s) at SOAS elaborates another crucial feature of the academic workplace.  Their international character, which the now defeated Theresa May long worked to curtail as both home secretary and prime minister, tends to lend advanced armoury to progressive campaigns by drawing in the (usually more mature) experiences of trade union and student struggles from abroad as well as offering concrete avenues for establishing solidarity (which the campaign received from students and workers from as far away as Mosul and Delhi). In another way though, managers at universities are not typical among their class.  Because ‘economic’ as well as ‘political’ assaults on campuses come from the same administrative source, the task of establishing solidarity between struggles against oppression and exploitation can be accomplished differently and more easily in the university’s combined environment.

Financialisation and crisis

The second lasting impact of the staff struggle has been preparing a favourable terrain for the teaching staff in the coming year. The institution itself is in a financial crisis about which its stewards make no secret.  Having announced that the university will empty its cash reserves by 2020, management plans to make £6 million of cuts to staff costs between 2017 and 2022.

While management’s apparent honesty about its balance sheet partially reflects a strategy to instil panicked confusion and deflect its own responsibility for taking advantage of the crisis rather than resolving it, SOAS’ financial situation also reflects the very real problems facing UK higher education.  In the absence of public interventions to set democratic priorities for what a university education should look like, the dictatorship of the market has relegated institutions like SOAS, that specialise in critical studies and non-English languages, to the margins.

This industrial strategy towards the so-called knowledge economy has produced a layer of higher education exporters whose satellite institutions are often laboratories for privatisation schemes that tend to return to home.  In the case of SOAS, it was in the University of Reading’s Malaysian subsidiary that the OPS was test run – with disastrous results.

The replication of the US experience, however, where universities generate immediately patentable ‘innovations’ for the private sector and receive, in return, rent to generate dependable income streams, remains incomplete in the UK. Consulting fees and commissions for auxiliary participation in private sector R&D remain far more dominant in their financial contribution to UK higher education balance sheets.  The private providers on whom the British state has invested its greatest hopes in leading the ‘knowledge’ industry have fared much worse, despite all the state’s interventions to protect them from regulation. Half of these private initiatives, which in 2014 entered a market they had confidently hoped to ‘disrupt’, discreetly exited within three years.

The withdrawal of public funds for higher education since 2010 initiated a fevered arms race of construction among universities in new buildings and facilities aimed at creating a neoliberal consumer experience in order to attract students.  The lifting of the university enrolment cap in 2015, having steadily and quickly risen since 2013, has made recruitment a growing and crucial axis of competition among higher education institutions.  The result has been the rising concentration of fixed capital and growing centralisation within the higher education industry.

This industry has grown ever more financialised, as falling state support for public universities, has forced them to behave like private ones whose reproduction demands constant interaction with financial markets.  Private student housing lubricated the entry of higher education into financial circuits, traditionally wary of a sector organically resistant to its metrics of assessment.  Property markets and interest-bearing capital intervene as past and future workers shoulder the costs of one another’s social reproduction internationally.

Pensions support the liabilities side of the balance sheet and payments from local and, crucially, international students maintain the asset side.  Financial integration in turn has accelerated the pace of competition and stratification among institutions as uneven access to loan capital depends on positions in league tables, university size as well as more general credit histories.

Squeezed by these conditions, small and specialist institutions become fly paper not only for neoliberal approaches to ‘raising revenue’ and ‘reducing costs’ but also for ever narrower academic agendas, attractive to interest-bearing capital in commercial banks and bond markets.   While SOAS’ curriculum has proved relatively more resistant to such influences, its uncertain how much longer the immunity of the institution may last. At a broader scale, the volatile interest rates of the post-2008 crisis period have contributed to the increasing precarity of the industry as lending banks among interest bearing capital have moved away from long term loans of three to four decades to short term loans of five to ten years.  The very accuracy of traditional budgeting has grown more questionable in this environment with ‘risk management’ personnel bloating the financially indebted balance sheets of university budgets. Moreover, the experience at SOAS and at other universities, reflects an organic challenge of subsuming teaching and other industries traditionally outside the disciplinary gaze of capital to the latter’s metrics of profitability.

Should student enrolments and associated revenue fall short in the coming academic year at SOAS, the institution will be confronted with an acute crisis.  In the absence of a mass movement to confront the forces of austerity, unions will be forced to follow the creative example Queen Mary UCU and seek to develop cooperative counter-proposals to management assaults.  Yet should management meet their enrolment targets, there remains no guarantee they will not seek to lighten their load anyway if they expect little resistance from the shop floor.

In this respect, Unison’s resistance over recent months was significant for two reasons. First, its results helped establish ‘no compulsory redundancies’ as a minimum which hopefully UCU can strategise beyond.  Second, the struggle waged by students has prepared a more fertile ground for solidarity among students and workers.  Indeed, deficits of confidence and solidarity have characterised the past ten years of sometimes explosive but ultimately defeated university struggles.

Changing the terrain

The key task for both students and workers, however, will be thinking beyond their own campuses and workplaces.  The growing subservience of research and teaching agendas to the imperatives of the market and the British state get to the heart of struggles over the self-determination of the academic workplace.

While the recent struggles of academic workers have been largely defensive, the election of a vigorous, left wing leader of UCU heralds the possibility of sweeping aside the barriers to an offensive strategy, should the rank and file intervene aggressively at its head. That UCU’s new president, Jo Grady, was herself a participant in the 2010 student fee strikes, the zenith of resistance to the post-2008 ruling class offensive, is testament to what even defeated struggles leave behind.

But if defeats also perform the work of preparation, our moment’s terminally ticking crisis of climate change, borders and imperialism suggests the space for preparation may also be growing narrower.  Expanding the immediate action agenda of working class organisations towards disruptive solidarity with struggles for climate justice, against Prevent and in solidarity with migrants will be among the sharpest weapons of an offensive agenda that breaks down the barriers to working class political action, including those like the Tories’ Trade Union Act.

With acute crises at every level of society, universities in the UK should lead the way, as their counterparts in Khartoum did, in demanding more than an end to austerity. They should also be places that can offer a vision of the humane, fully democratic workplace and learning environment that every generation and community deserves – the world we have to win.