Resisting the onslaught on higher education

The pensions and ‘four fights’ strikes now feel like a distant memory to many workers in higher education. We now need a national campaign to confront the attacks precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic argues Jonny Jones. Written with input from other rs21 members in higher education.

The UCU strikes from November 2019 to March 2020 now feel like a distant memory. Photo: Steve Eason.

In late 2019 and early 2020, academic and professional services university workers in the University and Colleges Union (UCU) were engaged in sustained strike action over pensions, and the ‘four fights’ over pay, casualisation, workload and the gender and BME pay gaps. Picket lines and teachouts sprung up at 74 institutions across the country with 22 days of action taking place between November and March. Just two months later, these strikes seem like a distant memory, with the sector hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within a week, workers went from striking to working overtime to move their teaching and assessment online. Action short of strike seemed little observed, and some branches even suspended their strikes to pitch in to the effort. Such actions, while understandable, were unwise. We gave up much of our short-term leverage with employers because the scale of the threat to ourselves and to our students seemed so huge. However, if any staff were hoping that such actions would see gratitude from university managers, they were swiftly disabused of the notion. The final offer put forward on the ‘four fights’ is a derisory insult, and as the scale of the recruitment crisis universities faced became clear, management moved quickly to make cuts. Why was the sector so badly prepared for this crisis? To answer that, we can look back to the last one.

During the financial crisis of 2007-8, the government made loans and guarantees worth £500 billion to keep the banks afloat. The bank bailout was followed by more than a decade of austerity in Britain. This included the privatisation of the higher education system by withdrawing public funding for the cost of teaching at universities. The costs of teaching were shifted onto students, charged £9,000 a year in tuition fees, for which government loans were made available. Only a relatively small government subsidy was kept for research. In order to survive and compete in the new marketplace, and to pay for the ever-increasing burden of managers and bureaucracy, universities have been forced to search for new sources of income. They have turned to international students, largely from China, to fill this gap in numbers, charging them a lot of money. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic halting global mobility and economic activity, universities are estimating an 80% fall in international student income. Add to that the hit to home student admissions this year, possibly 20%, and numerous other Covid-19 related costs and it is likely that a number of universities could go bankrupt in the coming year, while those that don’t will try to sack thousands of staff just to keep their heads above water.

In the face of this crisis, the employers’ association, Universities UK (UUK) asked government in April for a doubling of research funding – essentially a £2 billion bailout – as well as a ‘transformation fund’ to support universities. In exchange, UUK promised to ‘reduce costs and further increase efficiency through strong actions such as recruitment freezes and new tighter controls on spending’. In practice, this means massive redundancies in the sector. Already, staff employed on fixed-term contracts in many institutions are finding that their contracts are not being renewed. In 2018/19 there were 72,750 academics – 34% of the total – on fixed term contracts, disproportionately impacting women, BME and early-career staff. On top of this, many professional services and ancillary staff are employed on fixed-term and casualised contracts. However, the government said unequivocally that it will not provide a penny of bailout money, limiting their intervention to bringing forward the payment of tuition fee income by a few months. All this despite the fact that – far from being the cause of the current crisis – universities are especially well placed to contribute solutions to it. But the Tories see this crisis as an opportunity to complete the process of marketisation that they started with the 2010 fee reforms.

In the face of this onslaught, the UCU nationally has been slow to act. The leadership has focused on lobbying government for a no-strings bailout. While they have emailed members to say they are ‘preparing a national campaign to protect the whole HE workforce’, thousands of workers have already been effectively sacked, and thousands more have been told they will not have their contracts renewed. The University of Roehampton has announced a plan to cut 15% of staff. Many PhD students who were relying on teaching work to fund their studies are finding that those opportunities are being removed. Meanwhile, university departments are already drawing up plans to shift the teaching load of fixed-term staff onto permanent staff. Emergency plans for online teaching risk being made permanent as universities look for cheaper ways of delivering teaching to students with less staff.  Behind the language of ‘recruitment freezes’ lies the decimation of the young academic workforce, the intensification of the workloads of permanent staff, and the reduction of students to online consumers.

There are signs of resistance re-emerging at the grassroots, however. Union branches meeting online have been discussing the way forward and grassroots initiatives have begun to spring up. The CoronaContract campaign, for example, began with a petition to guarantee two years of employment for fixed term staff and has organised webinars and provided speakers for several UCU branch meetings that have gone on to pass its model motion. Campaigns by Graduate Teaching Assistants have sprung up in many universities, including Essex, Kings, Glasgow and Sussex. PandemicPGRs emerged to advocate for Post Graduate Researchers throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Alongside these new initiatives, UCU Left has held several well attended online meetings, as has the UCU rank and file organising group. The Higher Education Convention held a 500 strong online meeting, with another lined up for Saturday 23 May.

All this activity must translate into organisation and pressure that can be brought to bear on our employers and the government, but also on the UCU nationally. We need a national campaign to oppose the onslaught on HE workers. We should reject the ‘four fights’ offer that would demoralise and demobilise casualised workers at the sharp end of the cuts. Mass online meetings of activists, such as those held by the NEU union, should be used to develop our plans for national, sector-wide resistance, collectively and rapidly identifying our sources of industrial leverage.

In the short-term, we need to win an argument that permanent staff should resist accepting work that has been reallocated from fixed-term staff. This is crucial to forming an effective alliance to oppose restructuring: casualised workers in HE are in serious danger of losing jobs, and correspondingly, permanent staff face massively increased workloads. Activists at Queen Mary University of London have developed a set of questions on risk assessments, equalities impact assessments, alterations to terms and conditions and student complaints, that permanent staff can pose to management to slow and obstruct reallocation of work. This opposition can be combined with support for the Corona Contract demand for a two-year contract, and indeed for a jobs guarantee for all HE staff. Such campaigning should be at the heart of efforts to build capacity at the local level for effective industrial action.

UCU and other campus unions should be putting forward bold proposals about a post Covid-19 settlement that decisively breaks with the marketisation of the sector, as outlined in this open letter signed by hundreds of academic workers and backed by John McDonnell. On the one hand, this means an end to tuition fees, increasing research funding and pay for all staff, amongst other measures. On the other hand, we need to be calling for a thoroughgoing democratisation of the sector, and an end to the rule by diktat of senior management on bloated salaries. We must also rally in support of institutions facing financial crisis and emergency restructuring, such as SOAS. Our colleagues and students in these universities should not sacrificed on the altar of the market. Such demands are radical, but we are at a crucial and unprecedented juncture for both the sector and society as a whole. In such periods, we must be as radical as reality itself.


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