Why we strike

As I write, the strike over USS in British universities looms ever larger. With action due to begin on 22nd February, and UUK thus far showing no signs of backing down, strike planning has commenced in earnest in union branches across the country. The NUS took a while to release a statement of support, and individual student unions have been yet more equivocal, with some even playing key roles in helping co-ordinate universities’ response to strike action. That’s not to say student support isn’t present – it is – but the days of (perceived, rather than real) unanimity and solidarity between teacher and student are gone.

Which is the point of the strike, really. Yes, the strike is about USS. Yes, it’s about trying to ensure we can actually have some sort of meaningful income in old age. But in reality what it’s really about is restating our purpose as academics, to be custodians of a university that’s more than a knowledge-economy-sausage-machine headed up by tyrants who think they need ¬£400k-plus salaries, speechwriters and chauffeurs.

The fact that student support has been less forthcoming in the past in part reflects the success of the neoliberal revolution in higher education – in denaturing the education aspect of degree-level learning in favour instead of a ‘customer’ model where the students buy a product, or a ticket, and that gets them a job. Those students virulently opposed to strike action – such as the anonymous author of a student union ‘idea’ at Exeter calling for all UCU members to be publicly named – don’t feel common cause with lecturers, but feel disdain instead.

Colleagues have been, as ever, inventive in their thinking on how to articulate the cause to students. Teach-outs. Festivals on the picket line. And so on. All that is meaningful, and it matters.

But part of what’s being lost – and which is worrying academics too – is the big picture. On the anniversary of an early victory for the suffragettes – the (partial) extension of the franchise to women – its worth remembering that big change doesn’t usually happen, as James C. Scott notes, through convivial meetings will well-intentioned rulers.

It is the result of conflict. The result of being prepared to change the rule of the game, to push those rules to breaking point so that new paradigms can be built. The normative paradigm in UK higher education today is edicts by unaccountable ministers, followed slavishly by university leaderships in search of knighthoods and peerages, implemented by an academic workforce beholden to a culture of fear, generated both by their managers and – increasingly – their consumers.

As I wrote previously, what enters into that to keep it going is the remaining cultural capital the academic has, the lies we tell ourselves. I’m a Doctor, don’t you know. My opinions matter, don’t you know. I have status, don’t you know.

Except that, in reality, you’re a serf, no longer a custodian of a collegial institution committed to the advancement of learning both for scholars and wider civil society. You – we – allowed the government to restrict academic freedom of speech due to the clumsy implementation of the media-driven Prevent agenda. Countless academic critiques went unheard.

You – we – allowed the government to assert Olympian powers over universities, including the ability to deprive them of ‘provider’ status.

And thus it comes to this. The big issues having been seemingly lost, we meet our Waterloo on the classic industrial relations battleground of pensions.

Or do we?

The cultural studies theorist Mark Fisher once asked ‘what if you held a protest and everyone came?’

What if we all go on strike, refuse to reschedule our classes, mount campaigns against the venal excess of VC pay, fight to retake control of our Senates, stand for election to our union committees to stop them being the dead hands of the HR department through voluntary severances and ‘good deals’ through ‘good relations with management’?

What if we all did that?

What if those of us with some resources to draw on donated to the strike funds to keep our colleagues who haven’t going?

I don’t know about you, but I can guess.

I’ve had enough of being told arbitrarily what’s what by those who neither know nor care what’s good for my university, or what’s good for my students.

Yes, I want a pension.

But I want to recapture the university more. This strike will either be the beginning or the end. Yes, it will be painful for us, and for the students.

But in the long run, it will be better for all of us.

We cannot tell undergraduates to be ‘engaged global citizens’ and not be ourselves.

We cannot tell them we want them to be ‘change agents’ and not be ourselves.

We have to be educators – and we do that by example, as well as ticking the boxes of the TEF.

Standing up for what we believe in, taking risks, looking out for each other, being a real community.

The alternative is the end. A broken union, demoralised staff, knowledge factories at the behest of government.

Instead, let’s choose a beginning.

That’s why we strike. To recapture the university for the benefit of democratic civil society, and, yes, for our students.

It’s a long war ahead. Let’s win this first battle. And let’s punch our full weight in doing it.

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